Drugs, Pregnancy & Lactation

Transcranial magnetic stimulation during pregnancy: An alternative to antidepressant treatment?


A growing number of women ask about nonpharmacologic approaches for either the treatment of acute perinatal depression or for relapse prevention during pregnancy.

The last several decades have brought an increasing level of comfort with respect to antidepressant use during pregnancy, which derives from several factors.

Dr. Lee S. Cohen, director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women's Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

Dr. Lee S. Cohen

First, it’s been well described that there’s an increased risk of relapse and morbidity associated with discontinuation of antidepressants proximate to pregnancy, particularly in women with histories of recurrent disease (JAMA Psychiatry. 2023;80[5]:441-50 and JAMA. 2006;295[5]:499-507).

Second, there’s an obvious increased confidence about using antidepressants during pregnancy given the robust reproductive safety data about antidepressants with respect to both teratogenesis and risk for organ malformation. Other studies also fail to demonstrate a relationship between fetal exposure to antidepressants and risk for subsequent development of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. These latter studies have been reviewed extensively in systematic reviews of meta-analyses addressing this question.

However, there are women who, as they approach the question of antidepressant use during pregnancy, would prefer a nonpharmacologic approach to managing depression in the setting of either a planned pregnancy, or sometimes in the setting of acute onset of depressive symptoms during pregnancy. Other women are more comfortable with the data in hand regarding the reproductive safety of antidepressants and continue antidepressants that have afforded emotional well-being, particularly if the road to well-being or euthymia has been a long one.

Still, we at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Women’s Mental Health along with multidisciplinary colleagues with whom we engage during our weekly Virtual Rounds community have observed a growing number of women asking about nonpharmacologic approaches for either the treatment of acute perinatal depression or for relapse prevention during pregnancy. They ask about these options for personal reasons, regardless of what we may know (and what we may not know) about existing pharmacologic interventions. In these scenarios, it is important to keep in mind that it is not about what we as clinicians necessarily know about these medicines per se that drives treatment, but rather about the private calculus that women and their partners apply about risk and benefit of pharmacologic treatment during pregnancy.

Nonpharmacologic treatment options

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and behavioral activation are therapies all of which have an evidence base with respect to their effectiveness for either the acute treatment of both depression (and perinatal depression specifically) or for mitigating risk for depressive relapse (MBCT). Several investigations are underway evaluating digital apps that utilize MBCT and CBT in these patient populations as well.

New treatments for which we have none or exceedingly sparse data to support use during pregnancy are neurosteroids. We are asked all the time about the use of neurosteroids such as brexanolone or zuranolone during pregnancy. Given the data on effectiveness of these agents for treatment of postpartum depression, the question about use during pregnancy is intuitive. But at this point in time, absent data, their use during pregnancy cannot be recommended.

With respect to newer nonpharmacologic approaches that have been looked at for treatment of major depressive disorder, the Food and Drug Administration has approved transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a noninvasive form of neuromodulating therapy that use magnetic pulses to stimulate specific regions of the brain that have been implicated in psychiatric illness.

While there are no safety concerns that have been noted about use of TMS, the data regarding its use during pregnancy are still relatively limited, but it has been used to treat certain neurologic conditions during pregnancy. We now have a small randomized controlled study using TMS during pregnancy and multiple small case series suggesting a signal of efficacy in women with perinatal major depressive disorder. Side effects of TMS use during pregnancy have included hypotension, which has sometimes required repositioning of subjects, particularly later in pregnancy. Unlike electroconvulsive therapy, (ECT), often used when clinicians have exhausted other treatment options, TMS has no risk of seizure associated with its use.

TMS is now entering into the clinical arena in a more robust way. In certain settings, insurance companies are reimbursing for TMS treatment more often than was the case previously, making it a more viable option for a larger number of patients. There are also several exciting newer protocols, including theta burst stimulation, a new form of TMS treatment with less of a time commitment, and which may be more cost effective. However, data on this modality of treatment remain limited.


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