Santa Barbara resident Alissa Jesle had tried more than 14 medications to treat severe depression. She was watching TV when she saw an ad for transcranial magnetic stimulation, a non-drug, non-invasive treatment for depression that stimulates neurons in the brain to help regulate a person’s mood.
She searched for treatment centers, thinking she might have to travel to Thousand Oaks or Los Angeles, and was surprised to find TheraMind Services five minutes away from her home.
“Medicine for me, was not working,” Jesle said, “I was just sick of going that route.”
She turned to TheraMind Services in Santa Barbara for help.
The small, private center offers TMS treatment, which is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to treat depression and has been used to treat other mood and neurological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, concussions and stroke-related brain damage.
San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties also have a few medical centers that offer TMS therapy in which a TMS machine delivers rapid pulses of magnetic energy to neurons in a specific area of the brain, which then activate and release neurotransmitters to improve symptoms of depression.
The treatment is used as a last resort after medications and psychotherapy have failed, according to TheraMind, and it doesn’t have the same harmful side effects that drugs commonly do. Mild side effects include scalp irritation and headaches during treatment.
In Jesle’s case, she didn’t experience side effects from the treatment and was able to escape side effects from drugs, including pain, weight gain and mood changes.
“I didn’t have high hopes,” Jesle admitted, but she said her depression went “way down” after several weeks of treatment, and the alternative to medication was a relief for her.
TheraMind founder and President Mark Heatwole opened the business in Santa Barbara in 2014 after success with similar centers across the U.S.
Heatwole said TheraMind centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago areas are busy, but patient traffic at the Santa Barbara center is a bit more sluggish.
One deterrent is the cost of treatment, which isn’t always covered by insurance. Medicare will cover the treatment but not necessarily pay for it all. Medicaid won’t cover the treatment, and insurance companies require patients to have tried and exhausted several kinds of drugs before they will consider covering the cost.
Some patients, like Jesle, fit these requirements, and the bill is completely covered by insurance. Other clients may be parents of teenagers who choose to pay for their child’s treatment out-of-pocket instead of using prescription drugs.
TheraMind partners with local doctors in the community, including Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara and Sansum Clinic in Lompoc, which might refer patients who haven’t had success with drugs or other therapy.
“It would be hard for doctors locally to justify the capital required to bring in this kind of equipment,” Heatwole said, although he did not disclose the cost of operating locally.
Westmont College in Santa Barbara also partners with the center for research and internship programs.
Ronald See, Westmont professor and chair of the department of psychology, is working on a clinical study to identify probable response rates in people undergoing the TMS treatment. He said it’s rare to see someone 100 percent cured of depression. The treatment seeks to alleviate symptoms and bring people to a point where they can function at a healthy level.
“Is there something physical and biological that we can measure in a patient that would indicate who would respond best to the treatment?” he asked. That question is one his study seeks to address.
See and his team work with TheraMind to collect saliva samples, or “bio markers” as they are called, from patients in order to measure their hormone levels before, during and after TMS treatment. They make predictions on which bio markers will change and measure hormones that other studies have shown are altered in people with depression or mood disorders.
See noted the treatment has “become very widespread in its use.”
TheraMind has been certified through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to treat active duty military at the Santa Barbara location and is looking at a partnership with Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County. It also works with UC Santa Barbara and Westmont student health centers.
Dr. David Agnew, a neurologist who runs a clinic in Santa Barbara and serves as the medical director for TheraMind’s Santa Barbara center, said the center has been approached by patients from Vandenberg for PTSD and other service-related conditions.
Unfortunately, Agnew said, insurance isn’t always willing to cover the treatment, so it can be difficult to find patients who are willing to pay for and try these “relatively new treatments.”
Heatwole said drug-free treatment is the future of mental health care for mood disorders.
“Ten years from now, this is just the way it’s going to be done,” he said.