Transcranial electric stimulation is a non-invasive tool that can influence brain activity; however, the parameters necessary to affect local circuits in vivo remain to be explored. Here, we report that in rodents and human cadaver brains, ~75% of scalp-applied currents are attenuated by soft tissue and skull. Using intracellular and extracellular recordings in rats, we find that at least 1 mV/mm voltage gradient is necessary to affect neuronal spiking and subthreshold currents. We designed an 'intersectional short pulse' stimulation method to inject sufficiently high current intensities into the brain, while keeping the charge density and sensation on the scalp surface relatively low. We verify the regional specificity of this novel method in rodents; in humans, we demonstrate how it affects the amplitude of simultaneously recorded EEG alpha waves. Our combined results establish that neuronal circuits are instantaneously affected by intensity currents that are higher than those used in conventional protocols.