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New Anxiety Research Targets Brain Using Magnets

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Patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder usually have two treatment options: medication or counseling. But new research underway at Hartford Hospital is looking to add a third choice -- magnets.

Gretchen Diefenbach is the doctor in charge of the society. She said both medications and counseling treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy only help about half of the people who do those treatments. So she's looking at a new idea, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which targets so-called "worry circuits" in the brain. "It's a therapy where we put a magnetic pulse on the scalp," Diefenbach said. "That pulse is used in order to change the electrical activity underneath, in the brain site." 

If you're suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, Diefenbach said your worry circuits are hyperactive. In very preliminary trials, she said her research has shown promising results at reducing anxiety thus far. What makes Diefenbach's work even more interesting is that it employs TMS alongside another technique called "neuronavigation," which uses MRI imaging to pinpoint precisely where those worry circuits are in each patient. 

To do that sleuthing, Diefenbach enlisted the help of Michal Assaf, a researcher who images each patient's brain in an MRI machine, creating a virtual window into a patient's head. Assaf said scientists look through that window to pinpoint a particular part of the brain for treatment. "By manipulating the activity in this region," Assaf said, "we are hoping that we are affecting the whole circuit -- the whole network of regions that are involved in this."

The doctors stress their work is very early stage, and the research is ongoing. They plan to present their preliminary findings at a conference in May.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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