Mental health has a past, present, and future – a future that sees an increase in talk therapy and better mental health education. This shift in society’s attitudes, coupled with declining mental health, has urged people to constantly seek new and effective ways to improve their well-being.
One method that has gained popularity in recent years is transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). But what is tDCS used for? Studies show that it can be used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and even addiction, as well as prime the brain for learning and memory.
What is a Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation device?
Also known as a transcranial direct current stimulator, tDCS devices are non-invasive brain stimulation tools that use low-level electrical current to stimulate specific parts of the brain. Traditionally, these devices consist of electrodes to place on the scalp and a battery-operated or rechargeable stimulator to deliver the electrical current.
As these devices become more common, many companies have developed headsets and other sorts of wearable devices to make the experience more seamless and accessible. During a tDCS session, the electrodes are placed on the scalp (or the headset is worn), and the stimulator is turned on, delivering a low-level electrical current to the targeted area of the brain. The current is typically very mild, ranging from 1 to 2 milliamperes, and is often described as a mild tingling or itching sensation.
The most enticing part about tDCS devices is that they’re portable and can be used in a variety of settings, including clinics, research labs, and even at home.
What does tDCS help with?
The way tDCS works is that the electrical current passes through the electrodes placed on the scalp to affect how active the neurons in the targeted area of the brain are. The change in activity is said to adjust the chemicals in the brain that play a role in mood and thought regulation. And although we’re talking about mental health, these benefits aren’t just limited to those with diagnoses but also those who want to improve their concentration and mood or need help dealing with chronic pain.
Common uses include:
- Memory improvement
- Depression/Major Depressive Disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Parkinson’s disease
How does tDCS work for depression?
Studies have shown that direct current brain stimulation can have a positive effect on the symptoms of depression. Let’s look at Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). With so many being resistant to antidepressants, a first-line option for those with MDD, non-pharmacological treatments are ever-important.
In one study that looked at at-home tDCS treatment directed by a health professional, their beck-depression inventory score (subjective measures of depression) decreased significantly as treatment went on. Professionals say that tDCS brain stimulation works for depression by increasing the activity of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is involved in regulating mood and emotion.
People with depression tend to have decreased activity in this region, and it’s believed that tDCS has a “normalizing” effect on brain activity, helping to restore balance to the neural networks that regulate mood and emotion.
Does tDCS work for anxiety?
And when it comes to anxiety, it’s much like depression in that it’s believed to be linked to imbalances in brain regions and neurotransmitters. Being such a prevalent and debilitating condition worldwide, it’s good news that tDCS may also be helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms through that balancing effect we’ve seen with depression.
Although the evidence regarding anxiety and tDCS is more cloudy, clinical research has found positive effects on anxiety disorders such as anorexia nervosa, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. The behavioral and psychological outcomes have shown a lot of promise, and one study on patients with epilepsy supports this.
When it came to tDCS effects on direct current brain stimulation on anxiety, stress, and depression on epilepsy, the study showed a significant decrease in the scales of depression, anxiety, and stress through changes in brain structure.
How does tDCS improve cognition and learning?
tDCS devices don’t just benefit anxiety and depression but cognition and learning too. As tDCS increases the excitability of neurons in targeted brain regions, this can enhance the brain’s ability to form new connections between neurons – which is key to learning and memory. And not only that, it can also increase the activity of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and acetylcholine, which are important for attention, motivation, and learning.
Researchers have studied tDCS’ potential in associative verbal learning for language reacquisition after stroke-induced aphasia and language learning in healthy adults, finding positive results after anodal stimulation. Participants displayed faster and better associative learning, demonstrating tDCS’ reliability in motor learning.
Can you do tDCS at home?
The brain has the superpower of being naturally able to adapt and change, and this ability has been the driving force behind the development of at-home tDCS devices. These devices offer a convenient and cost-effective way for people to improve their cognitive function and mental health from the comfort of their own couches.
At-home tDCS devices typically come with detailed instructions and safety guidelines to ensure that users can safely and effectively use them on their own. Many devices also come with pre-programmed settings that are tailored to specific cognitive functions, whether you’re looking to boost your mood or alleviate anxiety symptoms.
How often can you do tDCS?
tDCS is more effective with regular use, whether it’s daily, once weekly, or once a month. Many sessions often last between 5 – 40 minutes each, with 20 – 30 minute sessions being the average. Depending on the protocol and individual’s goals, everyone’s recommended experience is likely to be different.
At-home tDCS devices are an accessible and complementary tool that has the potential to transform mental health. By harnessing the power of tDCS treatment, we can foster positive outcomes when it comes to common and paralyzing conditions and improve the quality of life for many.