Depression is a burden that many have on their shoulders. The WHO states that it is a “leading cause of disability worldwide,” with 280 million people suffering from its effects. It goes beyond short-lived bouts of sadness, affecting every aspect of someone’s life.
While mental health has come a long way in some parts of the world, not everyone has access to programs, therapy, medication, and other psychological interventions. Sometimes, people are stuck on a waitlist for counseling and treatment, forced to deal with the deterioration of their mental health.
This is where transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) devices come in. It’s no question that tDCS devices aren’t a replacement for mental health professionals or pharmaceuticals. Still, they’re medically-approved devices (in most instances) that can alleviate symptoms of depression and allow many to cope on a day-to-day basis.
What are tDCS devices for depression?
Transcranial direct current stimulation devices are non-invasive devices that use electrodes to stimulate the brain. Think of them as wearable headgear that delivers electric signals to areas that need it. To use them, you’ll wear the device or place the electrodes on your head, set the session time, set the power output level, and continue with your current activities until the session is over.
Although there’s been a long history of using electrical stimulation to treat medical conditions, it wasn’t until 1998 when direct current was advocated for, and the modern tDCS was created. In the past decade, at-home devices have been slowly coming out into the market, available at cost-effective prices for anyone to buy.
These devices are marketed and studied to aid concentration, rehabilitation, chronic pain, and neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression. It’s certainly not just a scam or based on placebo, as many clinical studies and medical reviews have proven that self-administered tDCS treatments improve depressive symptoms.
For example, a study done by Oh et al. (2022) found that tDCS treatment at home decreased the beck-depression inventory score and improved subjective symptoms of depression for participants. A review done by Woodham et al. (2021) noted that tDCS is a strong first-line treatment for major depression. Not only did they find evidence for improvements in depressive symptoms, but also in:
- Clinical response
- Neuroplasticity at both the cellular and molecular level
- Cognitive control in emotion dysregulation
How can I use tDCS devices for depression?
The beauty of tDCS devices in the modern day is that they’re accessible, mostly affordable, and proven to have benefits. Simply hop online and you can browse the numerous devices on the market – ones that have traditional electrodes, ones that look like headsets, and everything in between.
If we’re getting into the meat of the workings of a tDCS device for depression, the way it commonly works is by stimulating the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for cognitive functions. This includes regulating our actions, thoughts, and emotions – problem-solving, creativity, impulse control, decision-making, and short-term memory, to name a few.
For those dealing with depression, the brain has an overall reduction in activity. But, parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex are more intensely affected. As the prefrontal cortex is impaired, tDCS devices can help to stimulate the area and boost activity. It’s almost like induced brain wave activity through exercise for your brain.
However, most things are not one-size-fits-all for everyone. Not every depressed person will have as poor activity in the prefrontal cortex as others. Like other mental health treatments, different people might need different electrode placement or treatment styles for tDCS.
For instance, this review by Szymkowicz, McLaren, and Woods (2016) found that the most common electrode placement for depression included one over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and one on the contralateral supraorbital area (just above the eyebrow on the forehead).
Overall, tDCS is a great therapeutic tool that can have broader effects on the brain to benefit depression. Only specific devices are approved and regulated by the FDA, but tDCS is fully approved by Health Canada. Most professionals recommend 20 – 30 minutes of daily use of an FDA-approved tDCS device.
With so many seeking relief and help, tDCS devices provide a way for people to take control of their mental health while waiting for treatment and services. In an ideal world, those who need it can use these self-help devices in tandem with making lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, and medication (in required circumstances).