"Because the brain is an electro/chemical organ, using both electrical and chemical approaches to treat it makes intuitive sense," she said.
For the report, published online Feb. 6 in JAMA Psychiatry, Brunoni's team divided 120 patients with major depression who had never taken antidepressants to take Zoloft or an inactive placebo every day with or without electrical brain stimulation, or with sham stimulation.
After six weeks of treatment, Brunoni's group found depression significantly improved among patients receiving Zoloft or electrical brain stimulation. However, the biggest gain was seen in those who received both therapies. To gauge improvement, the researchers used the Montgomery-Asberg depression rating scale.
Overall, the patients received 12 half-hour brain stimulation sessions over six weeks.
Side effects from brain stimulation usually are mild and include itching, scratching and redness on the stimulated area, Brunoni said.
However, the combination treatment was associated with more cases of mania after treatment, he said. "Although we could not rule out whether this association was spurious, other studies should investigate this issue," Brunoni said.
Brain stimulation alone could be useful for patients who can't take psychiatric drugs, he said. And the devices that deliver the treatment are relatively affordable, the authors noted.
Brunoni hopes this study will stimulate additional trials using this approach. "If other studies are also positive, tDCS might be a clinical therapy in the future," he said.
People suffering from major depression usually need lifetime treatment, he added. If these study results pan out, this could mean taking antidepressants daily and undergoing weekly sessions of brain stimulation for optimal relief, he said.
Another expert said brain stimulation looks "very promising" as an emerging new treatment for d
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