But testing magnet therapy has been difficult. "Double-blind" studies, in which neither the researchers nor participants know who is getting the real treatment and who is getting the fake, have been difficult to carry out.
The current study overcame that by creating an elaborate sham. During magnet therapy, participants were painlessly zapped by a pulsing electromagnetic coil 3,000 times over 37 minutes. The current created a head-tapping sensation that some people said reminded them of a woodpecker, George said.
The coil, which is aimed at the brain area to be stimulated, creates a magnetic field that passes through the skin and skull, inducing an electrical current in the brain.
Participants receiving the sham treatment felt the same head-tapping, but a metal insert below the magnet blocked the magnetic field from entering the brain while electrodes on the scalp delivered the tapping sensation.
Using electrical current to treat brain disorders has been around in some form since the 1940s and 1950s, said Tony Tang, an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Northwestern University. However, electroconvulsive, or electroshock, therapy can induce seizures, and some studies showed it might cause memory loss and brain damage. Though effective in some people, electric shock was viewed with suspicion by the public, and today is used only as a last resort, Tang said.
Magnet therapy is essentially a much gentler, less invasive form of electric shock therapy, Tang said.
"Transcranial magnet therapy is one of the most exciting new developments in our field," Tang said. "There are new drugs coming out every year, but they are all fairly similar to each other, and we don't see much difference in efficacy. With TMS, the mechanism is completely different. It's a
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