Depression is the leading cause of disability globally. As it is a major contributor to the global disease burden, researchers are working hard to come up with effective treatment strategies to combat the mental disorder. Recently, scientists at The University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine carried out a clinical study in which they experimented with brain stimulation as a possible treatment option for depression.
The researchers attached electrodes to the scalp of the study participants and sent a feeble alternating electrical current through them. An electrical pattern that occurred naturally in a definite region inside the brain was targeted and it was found that there was a significant improvement in the depressive symptoms in nearly 70 percent of the participants.
The research was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry in March 2019. It has laid the foundation for further extensive research investigations to employ a unique electrical brain stimulation called transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for the treatment of major depression.
tACS can be helpful in reducing depressive symptoms
Researchers have never used tACS to treat depressive symptoms before. Lead author Dr. Flavio Frohlich, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation, stated that now that the current research has proved the effectiveness of tACS in reducing depressive symptoms, the approach can be fine-tuned to help a lot of patients in a noninvasive and inexpensive way. Frohlich is the forerunner in this arena and has already published the results of preliminary clinical studies showing effective use of tACS for chronic pain and schizophrenia.
Frohlich’s tACS methodology is not like the conventional brain stimulation technique known as transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS) that comprises the administration of a constant, but feeble electric current to the brain through attached electrodes. This treatment modality had varied outcomes in dealing with multiple conditions comprising depression, however, Frohlich’s tACS program is innovative and still in the experimental stage compared to tDCS, an established treatment procedure for depression.
Frohlich’s strategy emphasizes on every individual’s personal alpha oscillations. These are measured on the electroencephalogram (EEG) and their frequency usually varies between 8 and 12 Hertz. When one closes one’s eyes, daydreams, meditates or ideates, especially when the brain shuts out sensory stimuli, the waves in this range increase significantly.
Establishing sync in imbalanced alpha oscillations treats depression
Research has shown that an imbalance in the alpha oscillations in the left frontal cortex causes depression. Frohlich envisaged that if an attempt was made to align these oscillations with those in the right frontal cortex, then there might be a probability of reducing the symptoms of depression. His team enrolled 32 people identified with depression and each patient was surveyed prior to the study, as per the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS), used as the typical depression measurement tool.
The study subjects were divided into three groups. The first group was provided a sham placebo stimulation, which was a brief electrical stimulus that produced physical sensations similar to those experienced by the participants undergoing the tACS session. A 40-Hertz tACS intervention was provided to the control group. This was well above the range the researchers assumed would influence alpha oscillations. Then, a treatment intervention of a 10-Hertz tACS electrical current, directed at the natural alpha waves of each individual, was provided to the third group. The intervention was deemed the treatment and lasted for 40 minutes for five days continually for each person.
The research was a randomized double-blinded clinical study where neither the researchers nor the participants knew who was in which group. The MADRS was administered to the participants subsequent to the five-day treatment course, then again after two weeks and at four weeks.
Significant reduction in depressive symptoms observed at two weeks
Before the investigation, Frohlich established the foremost objective the investigation was to explore if tACS would be successful in balancing an individual’s alpha waves. This was alleviation of depressive symptoms four weeks consequent to the treatment intervention for five days. The reason he chose the fixed timeframe was because the scientific work on tDCS had also used a similar timeframe.
It was found that the members in the 10-Hertz tACS group highlighted a reduction in alpha oscillations as these were synchronized in both the cortex. Nevertheless, the scientists failed to find a marked measurable reduction in symptoms of depression in the 10-Hertz tACS treatment group compared to the control group or the sham placebo group at four weeks.
However, when Frohlich and his team considered the data two weeks subsequent to the commencement of treatment, depression symptoms in 70 percent of the participants was halved, as indicated by their MADRS scores. This reduction was considerably more than the other groups. In fact, some of the patients displayed such significant improvements that Frohlich’s team is now working on their case studies. No such alleviation in symptoms was observed by the participants in the control group or the group administered the placebo.
Encouraged by the results, Frohlich and his team are recruiting for two follow-up studies. His current research was funded by the Foundation of Hope, Brain Behavior Research Foundation, the BRAIN Initiative and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Seeking treatment for depression
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), major depression affects more than 16.1 million Americans and is the leading cause of disability for people in the age group 15-44. Depression is an incapacitating mental disorder that can affect each and every area of an individual’s life, be it personal, professional or social. Therefore, it is important to seek treatment for it when the symptoms manifest.
If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, the Medical Concierge can help. We offer evidence-based depression treatment programs comprising a combination of medicines, psychotherapies, and alternative therapies. For more information, call our 24/7 mental health treatment hotline (877) 636-0042. You can also chat online with a member of our admissions team to know more about our state-of-the-art depression treatment centers. Our representatives can help find the best depression treatment program matching your requirements and smoothen your admission process.