EEG synchronized left prefrontal transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for treatment resistant depression is feasible and produces an entrainment dependent clinical response: A randomized controlled double blind clinical trial

Brain Stimul. 2023 Nov-Dec;16(6):1753-1763. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2023.11.010. Epub 2023 Dec 2.


Background: Synchronizing a TMS pulse with a person's underlying EEG rhythm can modify the brain's response. It is unclear if synchronizing rTMS trains might boost the antidepressant effect of TMS. In this first-in-human trial, we demonstrated that a single TMS pulse over the prefrontal cortex produces larger effects in the anterior cingulate depending on when it is fired relative to the individual's EEG alpha phase.

Objective/hypotheses: We had three hypotheses. 1) It is feasible to synchronize repetitive TMS (rTMS) delivery to a person's preferred prefrontal alpha phase in each train of every session during a 30-visit TMS depression treatment course. 2) EEG-synchronized rTMS would produce progressive entrainment greater than unsynchronized (UNSYNC) rTMS. And 3) SYNC TMS would have better antidepressant effects than UNSYNC (remission, final Hamilton Depression Rating <10).

Methods: We enrolled (n = 34) and treated (n = 28) adults with treatment resistant depression (TRD) and randomized them to receive six weeks (30 treatments) of left prefrontal rTMS at their individual alpha frequency (IAF) (range 6-13 Hz). Prior to starting the clinical trial, all patients had an interleaved fMRI-EEG-TMS (fET) scan to determine which phase of their alpha rhythm would produce the largest BOLD response in their dorsal anterior cingulate. Our clinical EEG-rTMS system then delivered the first TMS pulse in each train time-locked to this patient-specific 'preferred phase' of each patient's left prefrontal alpha oscillation. We randomized patients (1:1) to SYNC or UNSYNC, and all were treated at their IAF. Only the SYNC patients had the first pulse of each train for all sessions synchronized to their individualized preferred alpha phase (75 trains/session ×30 sessions, 2250 synchronizations per patient over six weeks). The UNSYNC group used a random firing with respect to the alpha wave. All other TMS parameters were balanced between the two groups. The system interfaced with a MagStim Horizon air-cooled Fig. 8 TMS coil. All patients were treated at their IAF, coil in the F3 position, 120 % MT, frequency 6-13 Hz, 40 pulses per train, average 15-s inter-train interval, 3000 pulses per session. All patients, raters, and treaters were blinded.

Results: In the intent to treat (ITT) sample, both groups had significant clinical improvement from baseline with no significant between-group differences, with the USYNC group having mathematically more remitters but fewer responders. (ITT -15 SYNC; 13 UNSYNC, response 5 (33 %), 1 (7 %), remission 2 (13 %), 6 (46 %). The same was true with the completer sample - 12 SYNC; 12 UNSYNC, response 4, 4 (both 30 %), remission 2 (17 %), 3 (25 %)). The clinical EEG phase synchronization system performed well with no failures. The average treatment session was approximately 90 min, with 30 min for placing the EEG cap and the actual TMS treatment for 45 min (which included gathering 10 min of resting EEG). Four subjects (1 SYNC) withdrew before six weeks of treatment. All 24 completer patients were treated for six weeks despite the trial occurring during the COVID pandemic. SYNC patients exhibited increased post-stimulation EEG entrainment over the six weeks. A detailed secondary analysis of entrainment data in the SYNC group showed that responders and non-responders in this group could be cleanly separated based on the total number of sessions with entrainment and the session-to-session precision of the entrained phase. For the SYNC group only, depression improvement was greater when more sessions were entrained at similar phases.

Conclusions: Synchronizing prefrontal TMS with a patient's prefrontal alpha frequency in a blinded clinical trial is possible and produces progressive EEG entrainment in synchronized patients only. There was no difference in overall clinical response in this small clinical trial. A secondary analysis showed that the consistency of the entrained phase across sessions was significantly associated with response outcome only in the SYNC group. These effects may not simply be due to how the stimulation is delivered but also whether the patient's brain can reliably entrain to a precise phase. EEG-synchronized clinical delivery of TMS is feasible and requires further study to determine the best method for determining the phase for synchronization.

Keywords: Depression; EEG; EEG synchronization; Entrainment; TMS.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Depressive Disorder, Treatment-Resistant* / therapy
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Humans
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation / methods
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antidepressive Agents