Fascinating new research is coming out of the Medical University of South Carolina centered around using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for astronauts while in space. Donna Roberts, M.D., and Bashar Baden, Ph.D. spearheaded this experiment after studying the effects that zero gravity has on the brain. They wanted to test that TMS could be used safely in this type of environment and be used as a treatment option for mental health issues and an alternative to medication while in space.
In a gravity situation, like here on earth, TMS has only been approved by the FDA to treat major depressive disorder. TMS is typically used when standard treatments such as therapy and medication prove to be ineffective. In many European countries, TMS is currently being used for other common conditions such as PTSD, stroke rehabilitation, anxiety disorders, and chronic pain. The team at the Medical University of South Carolina is also actively researching the application of TMS as a treatment for these other issues.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a non-invasive treatment that works by directing recurring magnetic energy pulses at specific areas of the brain that are involved in mood control. The magnetic pulses pass painlessly through the skull to stimulate brain cells which can improve communication between different parts of the brain. The result is long-lasting effects on how the brain functions which can ease depression symptoms and improve mood.
The study conducted by Roberts and Baden is particularly timely as NASA has been preparing for longer space missions to the moon and Mars. With this, the health and performance of the astronauts are becoming a central concern. In space, the human brain undergoes many changes due to fluid shift and intracranial pressure. The result is behavioral abnormalities such as cognitive deficits, sleep disruption, and psychological effects such as the development of depression.
For these missions, TMS would be a useful and space-saving tool as these astronauts may not touch down on earth for multiple years. TMS could provide an easy solution for the neuropsychiatric issues and prevent the need to bring medications where the quantity would need to cover that period. Medications in space are also not ideal. A person metabolizes medications differently in space, so it is trial and error to determine appropriate dosages.
While most people may not be traveling to space on missions to the moon, TMS is still a viable treatment option for those with major depressive disorder. In successful applications of TMS, depression symptoms will improve or go away completely. With results like this, an individual should be able to resume a more normal lifestyle with a lesser reliance on ongoing or maintenance treatment options.