As the electrodes are placed on your head, you wonder what the sensation of electricity running through your brain will feel like. You’re in a bare room that resembles a doctor’s office, but instead of blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, there are wires that run from your head to a box that will be transmitting electricity in just a few moments.
No, you aren’t in the electric chair about to be punished for your crimes, but instead, you are about to undergo Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) to see if you can capture one of its many possible benefits. While this may seem like a fringe, woo-woo treatment only dabbled in by extreme brain biohackers, there have actually been over 3,000 studies done on tDCS .
Before we go any further, it would be helpful to know what tDCS is. In short, the therapy involves attaching up to 20 electrodes to various parts of the head depending on which areas of the brain you are trying to target. These electrodes will then emit a weak (.28-.8 mA/cm2) current of electricity across your brain. Sessions typically last between 10-30 minutes and many studies have patients complete around 10 sessions within a two-week period.
As we know, neurons and synapses rely on electricity to pass information to one another, so introducing new electricity can alter this process . This electrical stimulation travels through the brain, modifying connections along the way, the changes sustainable long after treatment. It’s interesting learning about how it works, but you’re probably wondering “why even bother with it?”
As far-out as tDCS may seem, there are many studies showing a variety of different benefits. First, research has found tDCS to work well for a variety of different psychiatric disorders. A review by Bennabi and Haffen displayed many interesting studies that investigated the effect tDCS had on conditions such as major depressive disorder (MDD).
Worldwide, around 7% of people experience MDD, but many patients fail to see positive results from common pharmaceutical treatment options. However, we know that certain parts of the brain (left prefrontal cortex, for example) in people with MDD aren’t as active as they should be, so in theory, stimulating them with tDCS could help their condition.
In one randomized controlled study, 40 participants with major depression were subjected to 1mA of electricity for 10 minutes over 10 sessions and some promising results followed. After being evaluated using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and the Beck Depression Inventory, depression was lowered significantly when compared to the control group. A few more studies were carried out by the same scientists and depression was lowered by an average of 40.4% in the tDCS group versus 10.4% for the control.
It has also been found that a combination of tDCS and traditional pharmaceutical treatment worked better than tDCS by itself. However, it hasn’t really been investigated if tDCS and other natural depression treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, or journaling would have a synergistic effect.
From my own research, I know that alternative therapies like the ones I mentioned have been proven to help with anxiety and depression, so I assume combining it with something like tDCS would only enhance its effects. In the US, tDCS remains an experimental treatment for depression but has been adopted in many parts of Europe as a legitimate treatment option.
“this technique has gained renewed interest as a practical tool for the modulation of cortical excitability and the treatment of psychiatric disorders”
tDCS for cognitive enhancement is where you need to be careful as many companies are trying to make a quick buck by claiming that you can strap their device to your head, flick the switch and increase IQ by 50% or something of the sort. While some of these statements are just a money-making scheme, there has been real research showing that tDCS can, in fact, lead to cognitive improvements.
The cognitive enhancing effects have been promising enough for the US Department of Defense to take notice. They even performed their own single-blind study where participants were subjected to 2.0 mA of tDCS for 30 minutes. Electrodes were attached in areas that would stimulate the right frontal and parietal cortex which are involved in learning.
They then underwent a real-world virtual training exercise where participants identify threat-related objects that are concealed in a natural environment. The results? There was a significant improvement in the experimental group’s ability to identify the objects. fMRI also showed increased activity in the brain regions of interest .
“the application of anodal tDCS over these regions can greatly increase learning, resulting in one of the largest effects on learning yet reported. The methods developed here may be useful to decrease the time required to attain expertise in a variety of settings.”
Other studies done in ‘healthy’ people suggest that tDCS can improve working memory, attentional control, decision making, and creativity .
All of the positive research surrounding tDCS means that you should definitely go buy a set for yourself, right? Well, it is a bit more nuanced than that. First, despite a majority of research showing that tDCS does work, it would be disingenuous not to mention that there are a handful of studies in every category showing tDCS has no effect at all.
Furthermore, a lot of research has concluded that the effectiveness of tDCS may heavily rely on individual factors such as personality, genetics, age, and skull thickness. In addition to this, there really are no standard operating procedures when it comes to variables like the number of electrodes, placement of electrodes, electrical current strength, and duration of each session. Much more research needs to be done to solidify these aspects of tDCS.
Although we do need more definitive research, I believe that based on current evidence tDCS can work for many people and serves as a relatively cheap and safe way to improve depression symptoms and cognitive function especially if you are looking for a different therapy route.
Don’t hesitate to do your own research on the therapy and treatment options available to you. Whether you decide to try a DIY tDCS device or consult a therapy center is up to you, but either way, make sure to consult your primary care physician first. All in all, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to try something new.
A video of tDCS self-administration (skip to 1:56):
Have you ever tried tDCS?
Let us know what you thought in the comments!