Two pads containing electrodes soaked in salt water are placed directly onto the scalp, where they deliver a low, constant electrical current. The position of the electrodes can vary depending on the area in the brain that is targeted.
The study was released Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers in Brazil tested a technique known as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. They tested the approach on 120 patients with moderate to severe depression. Some received the scalp-shocking treatments along with the depression drug sertraline. Others received tDCS and a placebo. The remaining two groups received a placebo version of the scalp shocks with or without the drug.
After six weeks, the group that got both tDCS and medication showed faster, greater improvement than the other groups.
Dr. Joshua Berman, director of the Program in Brain Stimulation at Columbia Psychiatry, notes that "when you give a medication, it goes everywhere in brain. But with techniques like tDCS, you can identify neuronal circuits that aren't functioning the way you want."
The approach isn't anything new; tDCS has been used by the military on snipers and drone pilots. A variety of applications means the technique is also being explored for treatment of other neuropsychiatric disorders like stroke, Parkinson's disease, seizure disorders, schizophrenia, hallucinations and chronic pain.