Depression can be debilitating enough without the added stress of constantly forgetting where your keys or phone are or even what you did yesterday. Your episodic memory is what helps make you a unique individual. Certain depression treatments can affect your ability to remember, which can be alarming and frustrating for patients. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a newer and gentler alternative depression treatment that allows you to keep your memories.
To understand what makes TMS therapy different, let’s look at the link between depression, memory issues, and treatments.
What is TMS?
Because both treat depression and work by stimulating the brain, TMS is frequently confused with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), but that is where any similarity ends. ECT is a more invasive treatment with potential side effects. Most importantly, research has established ECT is definitively linked to memory problems where TMS is not. Read here to learn more about how TMS and ECT differ.
TMS is an FDA-cleared, non-invasive treatment for anxiety, Major Depressive Disorder, Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You get to relax in a soothing outpatient environment while MRI strength magnetic pulses are delivered to areas of your brain that influence mood, the Dorsal Lateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC).
Doctors administer these via an electrode placed on your scalp. You may feel light tapping, and the worst side effect is a short-lived headache. Once treatment is over, you can resume your daily activities as usual without recuperation.
Causes of Memory Issues
Poor sleep, alcohol or drug use, specific medications, stress, depression, and other mental health problems can affect your memory. Generally, four main issues result in memory loss:
- Motivated Forgetting: If you are upset, anxious, stressed, or in physical or emotional pain, you will have trouble remembering things.
- Interference: When you have competing memories, you won’t be able to recall everything.
- Failure to Store: When something prevents information from entering your long-term memory.
- Retrieval Failure: When you know something, but you cannot bring it to mind when you need it.
There is also minor age-related memory degradation unless dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is in the mix. Your age can mask memory issues that stem from untreated anxiety or depression. So that you can quickly tell the difference, age-related memory decline is typically a prolonged but steady decline. You should investigate sudden changes in your memory, especially when occurring around times of stress or a mental health flare.
When looking at memory problems, you have to consider the hippocampus. It is a deep structure in the brain that stores and manages your memories, including emotional memory recall and regulation. If your hippocampus is healthy, you can store and retrieve memories with little effort. If it’s struggling for various reasons, you will have difficulty retrieving memories when you want to recall something and storing it away to remember later.
When studying the hippocampus of people with depression, the hippocampus is altered and sometimes visibly atrophied. ECT treatments reach areas of the brain near the hippocampus. The surge of electricity can affect your memory in unpredictable ways. The good news is the hippocampus, like most of your brain, is highly plastic and can be encouraged to regenerate.
Depression and Memory Loss
Both depression and memory problems are brain issues, and they often go hand in hand. There are measurable differences between people’s brains that are not suffering from depression and those that are depressed. Specifically, the hippocampus is smaller, which can contribute to some of the symptoms of depression. The structural impairment leads to problems with concentration and memory issues. Ongoing depression and anxiety throughout adulthood can predict long-term memory declines by age 50.
Can TMS Worsen Memory Loss?
TMS works by stimulating neurons to restore normal function in the brain areas responsible for mood regulation. Because of this stimulation, TMS increases neurogenesis, the growth and proliferation of new brain cells, which can positively impact memory. The regrowth of brain cells can support the antidepressant effects of TMS. Researchers studying the effects of TMS are finding memory-enhancing results. Neuroscientists are currently investigating whether TMS therapy can help patients with extreme memory degradation from diseases like dementia, and the results look promising.
In addition to increasing the number of healthy brain cells, current studies are showing memory recall is enhanced during and after TMS treatment. Working memory, the amount of information you can be aware of at a given time, has also been improved in both depressed and healthy individuals. Some neuroscientists are studying the benefits of TMS for educational uses to boost learning, cognition, and creativity.
While many studies are still ongoing, the bottom line is that TMS does not cause memory issues like other antidepressant treatments. Studies suggest that it enhances memory instead and has a lasting effect. If you struggle with your mental health and the associated memory issues, TMS therapy can improve your quality of life.