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Few depressed patients helped by magnet therapy

May 10, 2010

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Using magnets to treat people with major depression has had a mixed record. Some studies have said that transcranial magnetic stimulation, which activates the left prefrontal cortex with an electromagnetic coil near the skull, has lifted depression in people who don’t respond to antidepressant drugs. But scientists have been skeptical about the research, questioning whether patients were properly compared with one another in one trial sponsored by the maker of the device tested. A new study funded by the National Institutes of Health, which randomly assigned patients to magnetic stimulation or a sham treatment, found that only a small number of patients benefited.

Dr. Mark George of the Medical University of South Carolina and researchers at three other universities enrolled 190 patients with major depression who were not taking drugs for their condition. They were randomly assigned to receive either transcranial magnetic stimulation or the sham treatment, which also used a coil and scalp electrodes but blocked its magnetic field. Both groups had treatments for 37 minutes a day for three weeks. Side effects such as headaches and nausea were similar but more common in the active treatment group.

In the transcranial stimulation group, 13 of the 92 patients, or 14.1 percent, improved to a point the researchers called remission. That compared with 5 of the 98 patients, or 5.1 percent, who got the sham treatment. The results mean that 12 patients would need to be treated for one to see depressive symptoms go away, a response the authors said was “less than one would like’’ for a daily treatment lasting three weeks.

BOTTOM LINE: Among patients with major depression, a slightly larger number improved after daily transcranial magnetic stimulation than those who got a sham procedure.

CAUTIONS: The results may not apply to the many people who have other psychiatric conditions along with depression.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Archives of General Psychiatry, May

ELIZABETH COONEY

Mammograms found ineffective for most under 40

Mammograms in most women under 40 may cause more harm than good, according to new research. Most physicians don’t recommend them before age 40, but nearly a third of women in their 30s in the United States have had one.

A study of more than 117,000 women who had their first mammogram between the ages of 18 and 39 suggests that the tests often result in false positives and rarely detect breast cancer in women at low risk. Using data from the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium, researchers analyzed results of screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms, which are ordered when symptoms, such as a lump, are found.

After a year, the cancer rate was low — 2.2 cancers per 1,000 mammograms. Most of the women were 35 to 39, and in this age group, 12.7 percent were recalled for more tests following a screening mammogram. Of that number, more than 98 percent didn’t have cancer, said coauthor Bonnie Yankaskas, professor of radiology at the University of North Carolina. “There are risks of being screened when you are not at high risk, including extra radiation exposure and the possibility of having extra imaging or even biopsy when you don’t need it,’’ she said.

BOTTOM LINE: Screening mammograms in women under 40 with low breast cancer risk are often inaccurate and rarely detect cancer.

CAUTIONS: Results from diagnostic mammograms were more accurate, so women with a family history of the disease or who have found a lump or other warning sign should discuss mammography with a physician.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, online May 3.

KELLI WHITLOCK BURTON

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