Electrically Syncing Up Brain Regions Found To Improve Depressive Symptoms

A first-of-its-kind study trialed on patients with major depression has shown a remarkable reduction in depressive symptoms via non-invasive electrical brain stimulation.

The study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine, has introduced a new kind of non-invasive electrical brain stimulation. Results have shown this new technique to be favorable in reducing depressive symptoms, however larger trials are set to explore it in further detail. The UNC research, led by Flavio Frohlich, focuses on a technique called Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS). Unlike other techniques of similar nature, tACS is non-invasive. The hypothesis was based on prior observations, which found patients with major depression to often exhibit elevated oscillatory activity in the left frontal areas of the brain. The hope is that by bringing that electrical activity into sync, it would possibly reduce depressive symptoms.

The study consisted of 32 subjects with clinical depression. Each subject was blindly separated into three groups: a sham placebo group, a control group receiving a 40-Hertz tACS intervention, and a treatment group receiving a 10-Hertz tACS intervention. For five days each subject received 40 minutes of stimulation, with two- and four-week follow ups. At the four-week follow-up point, the results showed no significant difference between all three groups. However, at the two-week follow up point, 70% of the 10-Hertz group reported at least a 50% reduction in their depression symptoms. This was considerably higher than both the placebo and the 40-Hertz control group at the two-week mark.

Being the first study of its kind, the conclusions to be drawn from it are still unclear. The researchers have stressed that this was an explorative pilot study and the results still demand further trials with larger sample sizes. Frohlich and the UNC team are already rolling out studies to explore the potential for tACS to treat symptoms of depression.