Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a non-invasive method for stimulating the brain and, in particular, the cerebral cortex. It uses a powerful electromagnet to generate a strong magnetic field that induces electrical current in the brain in much the same as direct stimulation with electricity.
First described in 1985,1 it is being investigated for many conditions including movement and psychiatric disorders.
Researchers from Chicago report a case in New Scientist where it was used to stimulate a road-traffic victim in a persistent vegetative state.2 After several sessions he could speak and obey commands.
This sort of case report makes for fascinating reading since it uses a technology that is unknown to most readers and challenges our beliefs about certain types of therapy. The argument that it is a real effect, and not one that occurred by chance, relies on the fact that the patient was stable for a considerable time before the intervention and responded very quickly. Is this enough proof? Certainly not, but it is good for hypothesis generating.
Mozart referred to Mesmerism in his comic opera Cosi Fan Tutti where the use of magnets was intended to revive the unconscious Albanians (Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise). Have doctors in Chicago, with a much stronger magnetic field, performed what Mesmer couldn’t?
(1) Barker AT, Jalinous R, Freeston IL. Non-invasive magnetic stimulation of human motor cortex. Lancet. 1985 May 11;1(8437):1106-7.
(2) Geddes L. Man ‘roused from coma’ by a magnetic field. New Scientist 2008;2678:8-9.