Brain Stimulation Plus Drug May Fight Depression
After six weeks of treatment, Brunoni's group found depression significantly improved among patients receiving Zoloft or electrical brain stimulation. However, the biggest gain was seen in those who received both therapies. To gauge improvement, the researchers used the Montgomery-Asberg depression rating scale.
Overall, the patients received 12 half-hour brain stimulation sessions over six weeks.
Side effects from brain stimulation usually are mild and include itching, scratching and redness on the stimulated area, Brunoni said.
However, the combination treatment was associated with more cases of mania after treatment, he said. "Although we could not rule out whether this association was spurious, other studies should investigate this issue," Brunoni said.
Brain stimulation alone could be useful for patients who can't take psychiatric drugs, he said. And the devices that deliver the treatment are relatively affordable, the authors noted.
Brunoni hopes this study will stimulate additional trials using this approach. "If other studies are also positive, tDCS might be a clinical therapy in the future," he said.
People suffering from major depression usually need lifetime treatment, he added. If these study results pan out, this could mean taking antidepressants daily and undergoing weekly sessions of brain stimulation for optimal relief, he said.
Another expert said brain stimulation looks "very promising" as an emerging new treatment for depression. "The safety profile is excellent," said Dr. Colleen Loo, a professor in the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "It is a very mild form of brain stimulation, no risk of seizures, does not impair thinking and may in fact improve thinking," she said.
Currently, tDCS is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat any condition, Lisanby said.
However, another noninvasive, brain-stimulating technique is FDA-approved and clinically available, she said. That technique -- called transcranial magnetic stimulation (tMS) -- uses a magnetic field to induce electrical changes within the brain.
Other potential treatments for depression that are undergoing testing include vagus nerve stimulation (this is the nerve running from the brain to deep in the belly) and deep brain stimulation, she said.