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What is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)?

Although several therapies exist for people with severe clinical depression, including medication, psychotherapy and electroconvulsive therapy, they don’t all work for everyone. For many people with severe depression -- characterized by an all-encompassing low mood and loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities -- who have tried without success to relieve their symptoms with at least one round of medication, there is a therapy that stimulates the brain but does so without general anesthesia or lingering aftereffects. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the procedure uses magnetic fields to change the activity in a specific area of the brain thought to influence mood and emotion to improve the symptoms of severe depression, explains Ian Cook, MD, director of the UCLA Depression Research and Clinic Program.

Clinical psychiatrist and TMS specialist Dr. Tarique Perera explains what transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is. Watch Dr. Perera's video for tips and information on mental health and well-being.


Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses short magnetic pulses delivered through a hand-held device placed on your scalp to alter brain activity. It is not FDA approved for treatment of bipolar depression. There are clinical trials being done at this time to determine its safety and effectiveness. It's thought that it helps correct chemical imbalances in the brain that trigger depression. Some side effects may include feelings of lightheadedness and/or mild headaches.

In transcranial magnetic stimulation(TMS), magnetic fields are sent through the scalp and skull to a particular area of the brain. When the magnetic field enters the brain it creates a small electrical current. This electrical current stimulates the brain cells (neurons) in a targeted brain area and causes them to fire (or send an electrical impulse). For example, if TMS is focused on the part of the brain that is associated with movement of the right thumb, the activated neurons cause the right thumb to twitch.

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