Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: The Origin Story

Medical Reviewer: Nima A. Fahimian, MD


Ben Spielberg, M.S., Ph.D. Candidate


Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is becoming widely known as an alternative therapy for treatment-resistant depression, among other mental illnesses such as anxiety, PTSD, and OCD, as well as chronic migraines. The sudden emergence of this treatment has many people turning heads — trans-what? Where did this new treatment come from, and how do we know it’s safe? Many people don’t know that TMS wasn’t always used as a treatment for depression; it has a long history in the medical field, and it still used for a variety of medical purposes. So, how was TMS developed?

Where did it all begin?

The history of TMS really begins with the history of studying the interaction between electricity and the brain. There has been scientific interest in this connection for thousands of years; Compositiones, a compilation of medical treatments dating back to 46 AD, features a recommendation of applying electric torpedo fish onto the scalp as a treatment for headaches. Other ancient medical records include similar treatments such as using live electric catfish to treat epilepsy.

While there is evidence that this connection has been explored throughout history, the foundation for modern electrophysiology was not laid until the late 18th century by Luigi Galvani through substantial research on the effects of electricity on the body. On this foundation, Michael Faraday made an important discovery in 1831. He proposed that every electrical current has a corresponding magnetic field, and therefore, altering one could alter the other. This reciprocal relationship is the underlying principle behind magnetic neural stimulation.

The Development of Neural Stimulation

Experimentation with the purpose of directly stimulating the human brain began in the late 19th century. Soon after, Italian physicians Bini and Cerletti developed ECT, or electroconvulsion therapy in the 1930’s, which involves electrically inducing a general seizure. ECT became widely used as a treatment for a variety of mental illnesses, and it still used to today for some severe cases of treatment-resistant mental disorders including depression. While it remains an effective treatment for many conditions, the use of anesthesia and associated health risks reserve it as a last resort option. Physicians wanted a safer and more accurate way to stimulate electrical signals in the brain.

In 1980, Merton and Morton developed transcranial electrical stimulation, or TES. This process could stimulate the motor cortex through the skull, but was very uncomfortable to the patient. Anthony T. Barker found an alternative in 1985 when he developed the first TMS device. Rather than using electricity, this device used a magnetic pulse in order to stimulate electrical signals within the brain tissue, based on Faraday’s 1831 discovery. This invention was groundbreaking because it accomplished neural stimulation without the painful or dangerous side effects. The risks of TMS remain rare, with an extremely low risk of seizure and low risk of fainting. Common side effects include a mild headache or lightheadedness that subsides quickly.

The abilities of the first TMS device were limited, but further improvements and technological advancements led to modern devices that can send repeated magnetic pulses at specific frequencies. Additionally, TMS wasn’t invented for treating mental conditions. The device was originally designed as a diagnostic research tool; it aided in measuring activity and function of specific neural pathways within the brain, and it is still widely used in clinical trials for this purpose.

TMS as a Medical Treatment

The medical properties of TMS were not acknowledged until a pilot study was published by Hans Martin Kolbinger in 1995. This study provided the first evidence that TMS had a significant impact on depression symptoms among patients with major depressive disorder. Since then, research has only grown on the effectiveness of TMS in treating a variety of neurological conditions. There is now scientific evidence that TMS has potential in treating Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia, stroke related disability, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, tinnitus, persistent vegetative states, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It also shows promise for treating Parkinson’s disease, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and addiction. TMS became approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating depression in 2008.

Although many people are only now hearing about TMS for the first time, magnetic neural stimulation has had a long journey in the medical field to bring us the TMS methods and devices that exist today. As scientific research continues, TMS will become more accessible ad widely known as a treatment for many neurological disorders.


As someone who has struggled with depression for years, I was skeptical about trying alternative treatment options. However, the team at Bespoke Treatment made me feel comfortable and supported throughout the entire process. Not only did their TMS therapy provide significant relief for my depression symptoms, but I also had a positive experience with their ketamine therapy. The staff was incredibly knowledgeable and took the time to answer all of my questions and address any concerns I had.

I can't recommend this place enough. I had an incredible experience with the treatment I received here. From the administrative staff to the medical team, I really appreciated the outstanding care and attention I received and always felt listened to. There was never any sense of rushing or a "one size fits all" approach, which is sadly very much the norm elsewhere. I highly recommend coming here for the excellent quality of services, professionalism, and warmth that are so important when you're needing mental health treatment.

TMS was amazing for me . I loved my treatments , the doctors, the staff as well as the office itself. Its an amazing place to go for your wellbeing . Everyone is super nice, kind and extremely professional. The place is very easy to get to with available parking. Basically no stress. I felt very comfortable with my technician and all his knowledge about TMS . I also loved Dr. Fahimian . He is extremely educated and knowable in his field. His patience in taking his time to answer all my questions and concerns were highly appreciated.

I was severely depressed when starting treatment. I could not handle meds and had big hopes that TMS would work. It absolutely did wonders for lifting my depression. I have my life back. I have motivation to do things and energy to achieve goals. I really wasn’t sure if the TMS method would work, but it did and I am forever grateful. It even helped with my ruminating thoughts. I’m able to be in the moment and get back into doing things I enjoy. I highly recommend TMS to anyone who needs it.

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