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Could Scalp Electrodes Switch Off Depression?

Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Tiny, current-emitting scalp electrodes may offer promise in the treatment of depression, a new study suggests.

In the study, which was released Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers in Brazil tested a technique known as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS for short.  

They tested the approach on 120 patients with moderate to severe depression who were divided into four groups.  Some received the scalp-shocking treatments along with the depression drug sertraline.  Others received tDCS and a fake version of the drug.  The remaining two groups received a fake placebo version of the head-zapping technique with or without the drug.

After six weeks, the group that got both tDCS and sertraline had a greater and more rapid improvement in their depression compared to the other groups.

For most people, the thought of applying electricity to the brain conjures up images of Frankenstein or Jack Nicholson in that final scene of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

This technique, however, simply sends small currents to change the way that neurons in the brain send their signals.  

Specifically, two pads containing electrodes soaked in salt water are placed directly onto the scalp, where they deliver a low, constant electrical current.  The position of the electrodes can vary depending on the area in the brain that is targeted. The electrical current alters the circuitry of brain neurons, either activating or suppressing them.  After about 20 to 30 minutes, the current is turned off.

The approach is far from unprecedented; tDCS has been used by the military to improve training efficiency of snipers and drone pilots.  More recently, it has generated noticeable buzz in the science world as potential treatment for a variety of disorders.

"This is the type of study that shows there may be something clinically meaningful in this treatment," says Dr. Pascual-Leone, director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation and professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, who had previously worked with one of the researchers on the current study.

Pascual-Leone says that tDCS has actually been tested for depression for several decades.  More recently, the technique has benefited from technological advances, and researchers like Pascual-Leone are saying that it could be a more favorable, better-tolerated technique for treatment of depression than drugs or electroconvulsive therapy.

Late stage clinical trials are currently in the works for use of tDCS for depression.

In fact, the technique is also being explored for treatment of other neuropsychiatric disorders like stroke, Parkinson's disease, seizure disorders and schizophrenia.

However, experts caution that more questions need to be answered before tDCS can be used clinically -- and especially at home, as some advocates have suggested.

"The study supports need for a multicenter study to look at duration of benefits and frequency of treatment," Pascuale-Leone said.  "Even though side effects are benign, we still don't know about the long-term side effects that can happen after years of treatment with tDCS."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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