Depression? Drugs better than transcranial electric stimulation

transcranial treatment photoResearchers concluded that medicinal therapy was more than twice as effective as low-intensity brain stimulation, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (photo: Izio Klein / HC-FMUSP)

A study in Brazil finds that drugs are a better option for patients suffering from depression than transcranial direct current stimulation  therapy (tDCS), which stimulates brain areas with low-intensity electric current. In the study, researchers at University of São Paulo’s teaching hospital found tDCS less effective than escitalopram, an anti-depressant.

The team of researchers led by André Brunoni, a professor in the Psychiatry Department of the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FMUSP), randomly divided 245 patients with depression into three groups. In the study, one group was treated with tDCS plus an oral placebo, the second received sham tDCS treatment plus the anti-depressant, and the third received sham tDCS treatment plus the oral placebo.

Results of the research were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“We found that treatment with tDCS was not half as effective as treatment with escitalopram and concluded that transcranial stimulation cannot be recommended as first-line therapy. The anti-depressant is easier to administer and much more effective. On the other hand, tDCS performed better than placebo in our previous studies,” Brunoni said.

About 12%-14% of the world’s population is estimated to suffer from depression, and it is relatively easy to find self-help websites with videos showing how to administer tDCS at home.

“It’s very striking,” Brunoni said. “These sites that claim to show how to stimulate your brain represent a huge risk for patients with depression. ‘Do-it-yourself’ solutions are strongly contra-indicated. In fact, they’re dangerous. I expect our study to have an impact on this phenomenon because we’ve proved there are adverse side effects and that it’s not as effective as many people think.”

According to the study, patients who received tDCS treatment presented with higher rates of skin redness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and nervousness than the other two groups, and new-onset mania developed in two patients in this group.

Electroconvulsive vs. transcranial therapy

Brunoni stressed the importance of not confusing tDCS with other methods such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which involves a far stronger current – typically 800 milliamperes, or 800 times the current used in tDCS – and is designed to produce a controlled seizure. Other differences include the fact that ECT delivers a brief pulse rather than a steady current.

The tDCS device is connected to a headband with twin electrodes placed on the patient’s temples so that the current runs through the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area with diminished activity in depressed people.

“People with depression display cerebral hypoactivity, especially in this brain region but also in others,” Brunoni said. “The action mechanism of stimulation was believed to increase brain activity in this region, but no such effect has yet been proven.”

Other techniques designed to change the brain’s electrical activity include transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcranial alternating-current stimulation, deep-brain stimulation and focused ultrasound.

“Of these, only transcranial magnetic stimulation and electroconvulsive therapy are currently cleared by the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] for the treatment of depression, and deep-brain stimulation has a humanitarian device exemption for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” writes Sarah H. Lisanby, director of the Division of Translational Research at the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in an editorial in the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Lisanby highlights the study performed in Brazil and argues that parameters are needed to measure the functioning of tDCS. Brunoni agreed. “There are no parameters that enable us to know whether the tDCS dose is right,” he said. “I know two pills are a higher dose than one. Moreover, some drugs can be measured in the bloodstream. The most common example is lithium. You can dose magnetic stimulation. In electrical stimulation, however, it isn’t what you see. It’s a very weak current that can be altered even by anatomical aspects in each patient.”


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Truman Lewis
Truman has been a bureau chief and correspondent in D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere, reporting for radio, television, print and news services, for more than 30 years. Most recently, he has reported extensively on health and consumer issues for and