Electric Brain Stimulation Can Cure the Blues

Electric Brain Stimulation Can Cure the Blues

Stimulating the brain with a weak electric current is an effective treatment for depression and could have other health benefits, according to researchers in Australia. About half of the depressed people studied had substantial improvements after Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), while other participants said the treatment improved their concentration and eliminated chronic pain.

Transcranial direct current stimulation passes a weak depolarizing electrical current into the front of the brain through electrodes on the scalp. Patients remain awake and alert during the procedure.

“We are excited about these results. This is the largest randomized controlled trial of transcranial direct current stimulation ever undertaken and, while the results need to be replicated, they confirm previous reports of significant antidepressant effects,” said Professor Colleen Loo of the University of New South Wales’ School of Psychiatry. “Most of the people who went into this trial had tried at least two other antidepressant treatments and got nowhere. So the results are far more significant than they might initially appear. We weren’t dealing with people who were easy to treat.”

In the study, 64 depressed participants received tDCS therapy for 20 minutes every day for up to six weeks or were part of a control group. Participants who improved during the trial were offered weekly booster treatments, with about 85% showing no relapse after three months.

“These results demonstrate that multiple tDCS sessions are safe and not associated with any adverse cognitive outcomes over time,” said Loo, who adds that tDCS is simple and inexpensive, requiring only a short visit to a clinic.

Transcranial direct current stimulation is different from Electroshock Therapy (ECT), a controversial treatment for mental illness that uses stronger electric currents.

The tDCS study also found unexpected physical and mental benefits, including improved attention and information processing. One participant with chronic neck pain reported the pain disappeared during the trial. “We think that is because tDCS actually changes the brain’s perception of pain,” Loo explained. “We believe these cognitive benefits are another positive aspect of the treatment worthy of investigation.”

The researchers are now looking at an additional trial that would include people with bipolar disorder. Previous research indicates tDCS is effective at treating Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, stroke and chronic pain.

The study is being published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Authored by: Pat Anson, Editor

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Timo at 2:40 am

    I love these results, that can spun an entire new modality to treat mood disorders. There are several interesting new openings in the area of brain stimulation, including a company from Finland called Valkee (means “light” in Finnish) – they project full-spectrum photonic energy of 6 lumens onto the brain tissue directly and have very promising results, plus a consumer device (http://valkee.com). I believe that we are seeing only the beginning of brain stimulation.

  2. James Fugedy at 2:28 pm

    tDCS is an effective, safe, easy to do, inexpensive procedure with no significant side effects. tDCS, besides relieving symptoms of depression, reduces treatment-resistant chronic pain, including migraine headache, neuralgia, complex regional pain syndrome, and fibromyalgia, improves recovery from stroke, reduces epileptic seizures and relieves tinnitus. Future studies look for tDCS to provide a drug-free treatment for patients with autism, ADHD, addiction and learning disabilities. The US Air Force has demonstrated enhanced learning for pilots utilizing tDCS. Even now medical ethicists are discussing the future role of tDCS in education, a potential tool to improve and enhance study.
    tDCS is beautiful in its simplicity, utilizing an impercetibly small current to facilitate or inhibit neurons underlying sponge electrodes. Multiple sessions result in long-term facilitation or inhibition persisting for 3 months or more. The polarity and positioning of the electrodes determines the effects.
    The abstracts of 600 published scientific articles are available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/.