You may have heard about a new, experimental treatment for ADHD and many other medical conditions called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which works by sending electrical currents through your brain. But wait, doesn’t that sound like electroconvulsive therapy (ECS)? And can't that be dangerous?
What is tCDS?
tCDS is a non-invasive form of neurostimulation. It sends a weak electrical current to your brain via electrodes on your scalp. These currents are either anodal, which increases neuronal activity or cathodal, which decreases it according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. With tDCS specific regions of the brain are targeted, depending on the medical condition, for example, people with ADHD might benefit from stimulation in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain.
The difference between tDCS and electroconvulsive therapy
ECS uses very high electrical currents, up to 800 milliamps and intentionally causes a short seizure. Patients are normally sedated during ECS. It is used as a last resort for severe mental illness. tDCS uses weak electrical currents, one to two milliamps, about the same strength as a nine volt battery. You do not need sedation to receive tDCS and the only known side effects from a session is mild tingling, itching or a burning sensation on the scalp. In the past decade, tDCS has been touted as a brain booster and studies have looked at its potential in treating myriad medical conditions, such as pain from neuropathy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, migraine disease, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression. In Europe, tDCS devices have been approved for treating pain and depression. In the U.S., however, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved the devices for any medical condition and isn’t even sure if it has the authority to, since they are often marketed not as medical devices but personal enhancement products, according to the Journal of Law and the Biosciences.
tDCS for ADHD
Several studies in the past few years have shown that symptoms of ADHD might improve with use of a tDCS device:
- A 2016 study in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience found that tDCS treatment potentially improved attention by allowing people to ignore competing stimuli.
- A 2016 study in the Journal of Child Neurology found a significant improvement in processing speed, improved detection of stimuli and an improved ability to switch between activities in children and adolescents with ADHD
- A 2015 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that the benefits of tDCS treatment for those with ADHD was not limited to only the areas of the brain that were stimulated but that there was increased neural activity in other areas as well.
Although the research is promising, there have not yet been any definitive findings that would lead the medical community to use tDCS as a treatment for ADHD.
Using tDCS at home
A number of commercial companies have begun selling tDCS devices to be used at home as a brain booster or cognitive enhancer, at prices that range from under $100 to well over $600. Research provides some evidence for claims that using such devices can increase math skills, improve memory, and help develop better social skills. But because these aren’t regulated by the FDA, the different devices haven’t gone through rigorous testing and the manufacturers can’t claim any medical benefits.
And before you rush out to get one, consider the precautions. An article in Scientific American explains:
- Not everyone responds the same to the electrical currents. Genetics, age, how thick your hair is, how much you sweat, and how thick your skull is can all influence how well you respond, if at all.
- It isn’t understood if stimulating the neurons in one area of your brain will cause problems in a different region.
- Not everyone’s brain is exactly the same size, so while you might think you are placing the electrodes correctly, you could end up stimulating the wrong area of the brain.
- Research has yet to show how long the effects of tDCS may last. It’s unclear, for example, whether you would need to use the device once a day or several times per day to get the same effect.
So far, the therapy has been considered harmless. But the therapy is relatively new and long-term effects are not yet understood. Also, perhaps most importantly, tDCS doesn’t work alone. You can’t send electrical currents through your brain and expect things to instantly change. You would still have to work at improvement through cognitive training and other methods as well. The best advice is to talk with your doctor before trying tDCS at home.
For more information on alternative treatments for ADHD:
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.