Depressed? Turn Up The Heat!

There's nothing quite like a warm bath or hot spa treatment to cure what ails you, even -- perhaps especially -- if what ails you is dementia.

It's not a new idea. For many years medicine has danced around the ballroom with the notion that hyperthermia – application of heat, basically – had some legitimately curative effects on mental illness. Then, in 1917, the Austrian doctor Julius Wagner-Jauregg began treating dementia patients with injections of blood from malaria patients. His thesis was that their dementia would be curbed by the heat from the malarial fever. Not only was he right, but he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his efforts.

Unfortunately for Dr. Wagner-Jauregg and fortunately for society, the medical community shortly thereafter came to its senses and realized that giving the mentally ill malaria didn't have quite the risk/reward ratio Hippocrates had in mind when he drew up his famous oath.

But although medicine has spent the better part of a century distancing itself from how the good doctor's “fever therapies,” the theory itself has persisted. Now the idea has returned in a new clinical trial suggesting that the spa-like experience of lying back while your body is heated for an hour or two acts as a mood enhancer so powerful it can rapidly curb symptoms of depression.

The study, out of the Psychiatry Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, involved 30 people with mild depression. About half the group went through a body-warming treatment that elevated their body temperature to about 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit for a little over an hour. The other group went through a procedure that was staged to look similar, but didn’t heat their bodies quite as much.

Upon subsequent psychiatric evaluations, the group who received the full hyperthermia treatment scored at least five points lower than the control group each week on the Hamilton Rating Scale, a questionnaire-based evaluation that reflects the severity of depression symptoms.

Researchers cautioned that the group of volunteers represented only those with mild depression. The mileage for patients suffering from more severe illness is likely to vary.