transcranial magnetic stimulation happeding on someone's brain

It gives, but does it also take away?

Phanie/Alamy Stock Photo

Manipulating your brain with magnetic fields sounds like science fiction. But the technique is real, and it’s here. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it is approved as a therapy for depression in the US and UK.

More controversially, it is being studied as a way to treat classic symptoms of autism, such as emotional disconnection. With interest and hopes rising, it’s under the spotlight at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore, Maryland, next week.

I can bear witness to the power of TMS, which induces small electrical currents in neurons. As someone with Asperger’s, I tried it for medical research, and described its impact in my book Switched On. After TMS, I could see emotional cues in other people – signals I had always been blind to, but that many non-autistic people pick up with ease. That sounds great, so why the need for debate?

Relieving depression isn’t controversial, because there is no question people suffer as a result of it. I too felt that I suffered – from emotional disconnection. But changing “emotional intelligence” to relieve that comes closer to changing the essence of how we think.

Changing who you are

Yes, emerging brain therapies like TMS have great potential. Several of the volunteers who went into the TMS lab at Harvard Medical School emerged with new self-awareness, and lasting changes. While I can’t speak with certainty for the others, I believe some of us have a degree of emotional insight that we didn’t have …

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