NEW ORLEANS -- We all know what it's like to feel sad. But serious depression is different. Patients can't concentrate, lose memory and have no motivation to do things they used to enjoy.
But now treatment has come to the area that is nothing like you've seen before. The first local doctor to use it and his patient say they are having some success.
The patient asked not to be identified, so we'll call her "Blair T." She has an illness. Her depression and anxiety was diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder.
"Well it just feels like you're on hyper-fear alert all the time and it makes it really hard to relax and it makes it hard to function, because there's this overwhelming sense of something terrible could happen at any minute," she explained.
Blair T. believes her brain became damaged or ill in her childhood.
"The first 10 years of my life I lived with somebody who was very physically and emotionally abusive, and that definitely did it," she recalled.
Psychiatrist Dr. James Barbee said illnesses of the brain, such as this, are real.
"People with the illness of major depression can't just snap out of it. It's not a matter of your attitude or reading the right book or whatever. It's a true illness, like having diabetes. I mean, no one would pretend that you could go read a self help book and get your blood sugar back to normal," said Dr. Barbee, who practices in New Orleans.
The standard treatment for major depression has been psychotherapy or medication. Studies show, used together, they produce a higher success rate. For severe cases, there's shock therapy.
But now, Dr. Barbee is the first in the area to use a new treatment.
It's called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS. Dr. Barbee selects a custom intensity or frequency for this magnet therapy.
For 37 and a half minutes it is aimed at a specific part of the brain in the left front area called the left prefrontal cortex. Research had shown in the past that there is an elevation in mood when this area of the brain was stimulated. Dr. Barbee says when a person has major depression, that area of the brain seems to be switched off.
In scans, the normal brain activity lights up the frontal area. In the depressed person, that area is blue and inactive.
"This is new exciting evidence that this is not something that people have under their control. It's not a weakness of personality. It's not a choice. It's a powerful change in brain function," he explained about the current evidence.
After treatment, scans show the front part of the brain has been turned on. That is the part of the brain that makes us human. It's responsible for attention function, decision making. A deeper part of the brain that regulates primitive emotions, such as anger and fear, has also been stimulated after treatment with TMS.
Dr. Barbee said at times he'll ask the patient if he or she is feeling any better, and the patients say they really don't notice a difference. But their spouses do. They report they are joking around more, they actually notice other people in the room, and they have more facial expressions.
"I think this is probably one of the most important developments in the treatment of depression in the course of my 30 years of being a psychiatrist. I think it may be comparable to the introduction of (the medication)Prozac," said Dr. Barbee.
"I've felt a lot more grounded and a lot less nervous. I used to fidget a lot and wring my hands and I'm not doing that anymore. And I'm just more present for my husband and the kids and my life," said Blair T. about how she now feels after treatment.
This technology is still in its infancy, but has gone through rigorous testing and independent scientific testing and approved by the FDA. Dr. Barbee has treated eight patients. In 20 to 30 sessions some got only a little better and half showed marked improvement, with three in remission going from ill to well.
"This isn't going to work for everybody. This is not a panacea. That's very important. I don't want to raise people's hopes unrealistically. I am very excited about it because I have seen some very difficult patients get better on it, but I've also had some patients on it who have not really had a huge improvement with it at this point," said Dr. Barbee.
But he cautions patients not to believe that home products on the Internet will compare to the professional machine because it is so powerful.
"Over the years, I've had a few patients who came in with magnets, like refrigerator magnets, taped to their head and that sort of thing because of what they had read (on the web,)" said Dr. Barbee.
But for now, for the sake of her marriage and young children, Blair T. is looking towards the future.
"It gives me a lot of hope. It's been a real Godsend," she said about her new calmer life at home.
Some insurance companies are just beginning to pay for this treatment. For now it's $400 a session with package deals and financing available.