Transcranial direct current stimulation for the treatment of major depressive disorder: a summary of preclinical, clinical and translational findings

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2012 Oct 1;39(1):9-16. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2012.05.016. Epub 2012 May 28.


Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a common psychiatric illness, with 6-12% lifetime prevalence. It is also among the five most disabling diseases worldwide. Current pharmacological treatments, although relatively effective, present important side effects that lead to treatment discontinuation. Therefore, novel treatment options for MDD are needed. Here, we discuss the recent advancements of one new neuromodulatory technique--transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)--that has undergone intensive research over the past decade with promising results. tDCS is based on the application of weak, direct electric current over the scalp, leading to cortical hypo- or hyper-polarization according to the specified parameters. Recent studies have shown that tDCS is able to induce potent changes in cortical excitability as well as to elicit long-lasting changes in brain activity. Moreover, tDCS is a technique with a low rate of reported side effects, relatively easy to apply and less expensive than other neuromodulatory techniques--appealing characteristics for clinical use. In the past years, 4 of 6 phase II clinical trials and one recent meta-analysis have shown positive results in ameliorating depression symptoms. tDCS has some interesting, unique aspects such as noninvasiveness and low rate of adverse effects, being a putative substitutive/augmentative agent for antidepressant drugs, and low-cost and portability, making it suitable for use in clinical practice. Still, further phase II and phase III trials are needed as to better clarify tDCS role in the therapeutic arsenal of MDD.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy*
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / adverse effects
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / methods
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / psychology*
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Translational Medical Research*