Mark Brown couldn’t sleep and felt like he was in a “fog” constantly. His speech and vision were impaired. Life was miserable for the Marine who had deployed four times.
Brown’s angst stemmed from a conversation about a decade after his 2005 deployment with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Division.
“We lost 48 Marines,” Brown recalled. “It was later when I just kind of snapped. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt tired all the time. And I knew something was wrong. My wife did, too.”
Brown sought help and received a tough assessment from a military doctor — “You are not going to get better overnight. You need a lot of treatment.” The doctor prescribed Zoloft for Brown, setting him on his “so-called path to recovery, as I ate meds for the next two years.”
Things began to change for Brown when he set aside the pills and tried a new treatment called PrTMS (Personalized repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation). The treatment is an innovative technique that targets specific areas of the brain using brief, painless electrical pulses through an FDA-approved device intended to stimulate and align brain waves. The number of PrTMS treatments will depend on the individual’s diagnosis, severity of symptoms, and response rate. Typically, patients receive one or two 20-minute treatments for six to eight weeks. About one in five return for follow-up treatments.
“The third day I woke up I actually felt like the fog lifted in my brain,” Brown recalls. “I felt like I had motivation to do something. I hadn’t done anything really in two years. I hadn’t fixed anything in my house; I didn’t help with the laundry; I didn’t cook; I didn’t do anything. Since this treatment I have installed a faucet, replaced all the grates in the grill. I’ve done a whole bunch of things around the house that I wasn’t doing. And now I feel like I want to be a part of the world, instead of just sitting in my house.”
Brown is among thousands of veterans, children with autism and others who have sought PrTMS treatment from Dr. Kevin Murphy, a Navy veteran and professor at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in brain tumors. The patients have suffered from neurocognitive disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), anxiety, depression, insomnia and addiction.
Murphy founded PeakLogic in 2014 after discovering his autistic son and cancer patients showed significant reduction in cognitive impairment following PrTMS treatment. This finding led to his research on patients with concussions, PTSD and TBI.
“If you have a brain, you’re a candidate,” he said. “We treat the brain like an organ so you can manifest your symptoms of anxiety and depression a certain way based upon age or experience or certain other personality traits. The manifestation of how you show your anxiety or stress or deprivation of sleep is interesting to me. But the more important issue is why the brain is doing that. Can we realign the brain waves themselves and re-establish a synchrony and a balance?”
First, patients are evaluated by Murphy’s team and a customized treatment plan is designed. Medical technicians interview the patients and give them an electroencephalogram and a physical evaluation. Technicians evaluate the patient’s brain waves, looking for hills and valleys of activity — irregular and disorganized neuron activity.
The more disruption in frequency, the more likely it is that the patient will be having difficulty sleeping or coping. Technicians also look for how often the brain fires — like a heart beating. At sleep, the brain fires four times a second; during anxious times, it fires 40 times a second.
Murphy’s team tries to identify the patient’s ideal sweet spot — the number of times a neuron fires. When patients undergo the treatment, the machine is programmed to generate a weak electrical current in the brain activating neuronal circuits at the stimulation site, at a prescribed rate, promoting neuronal harmony and optimal brain function. This recalculates the brain activity, allowing it to fire at a speed that allows the patient to sleep.
He explains that the brain needs time each day to go offline — or sleep — in order for the neuron to recharge for the next day.
“Over time, if we don’t give that neuron a repetitive night’s sleep, it starts to take that frequency back from us,” he said. “And it won’t be at the same rate. It tends to slow, as a self-preserving mechanism, for being overworked, overrun. We really want patients to sleep well, as part of our therapy. We drag those neurons back online, and make them behave, and ideally, each night, you give that neuron a chance to sleep and restore.”
Without the restoration, people experience mood shifts and behavior changes. After undergoing the treatment, Murphy says, the changes are extraordinary. Athletes perform better. Autistic kids speak more clearly. Veterans and others with PTSD sleep better and are more relaxed.
Ed Hanson, a Vietnam War veteran, had a similar experience to Brown’s.
Hanson remembers waking up seven to 12 times each night before getting his treatment. The Navy veteran was on alert because his wife, Marilyn, was experiencing a serious health issue.
“I tried to stay awake at night,” he said. “I would go to work and run my business during the day. Months went by and when my wife got better, my brain didn’t know how to shut itself off and so I’d still wake up 7-12 times at night. I didn’t think it could be fixed because here I am almost 70 years old.”
Hanson was frustrated, worried about having dementia and experienced short-term memory loss. But he decided to try the treatment. After only three sessions, he noticed a difference.
“On the third night I went to bed, I woke up and it was 5 in the morning,” he recalled. “It had been 25 to 30 years since I slept through the whole night. I am thinking, this is just a fluke. The next night I went to bed, and I woke up at 5:30 a.m. I am looking forward to going to bed now.”
Hanson, a member of American Legion Post 303 in El Cajon, Calif., feels recovered. He’s more energetic and has restarted an exercise routine with his Bowflex machine.
“I dusted off my Superman cape that I thought was trashed,” he said. “Now, I am a better husband, better father. All because of the treatment. My wife noticed that, well, she got her Ed back. And I always wanted to be her superhero, but I didn’t have the energy anymore. Now, I am less anxious. I am not so jumpy. And it was all because of sleep deprivation.”
Nick Norris is a former Navy SEAL who was experiencing similar symptoms but didn’t want to try opioids, sleep medication and other treatments that his peers have tried.
“I went into treatment and I felt just calm, more approachable,” Norris says, adding that he had to return for a second series of therapies to be “reset,” as Murphy describes it. About 20 percent of patients return at some point to undergo a second series of the therapy to reset their brainwaves.
Two weeks into his second treatment, Norris could tell the difference. He realized he had slipped back into where he was before the initial treatment. He was stressed, argumentative and angry.
“I feel like I have turned a corner in the last week,” he said amid his second round of treatment. “My edginess is gone. I am more engaging. I feel friendlier. Something has changed to make me a better version of myself and optimize who I am and allowed me to be a better father, and a better husband, a better friend, and a better business partner. It has definitely been a remarkable treatment. I really kind of rely on it to keep me as the better version of myself moving forward.”
Those kinds of success stories are what motivates Murphy.
“Of the 300 to 400 veterans, maybe a third of them will tell me, ‘You saved my life,’” said Murphy, a member of The American Legion. “That’s very rewarding. Or their families will say, ‘You saved his life’ or they’ll say, ‘You saved our marriage’ or ‘You saved our kids.’ There are a few things in medicine that do this, that get that kind of result, that make that big of a difference. I am flattered to be involved in it.”
Before Brown underwent the treatment, loud noises made him jittery and he often resisted venturing to public events or places. But that was before he underwent the treatment that he describes as “absolutely life changing.”
Now, he voluntarily goes grocery shopping and looks forward to his son’s basketball games — and doesn’t need to take his medication before doing so.
Later this year, Brown will retire while his wife is committed to serving nine more years in the Navy. He is looking forward to the change — another breakthrough in his recovery.
“I didn’t want change; I didn’t want to accept change,” he said of the time before he tried out PrTRMS. “Now, I look forward to going with her wherever she goes.”