Dr. Anthony Komaroff

Dr. Anthony Komaroff

Value of tDCS therapy is unproven

By Dr. Anthony Komaroff
Medical Columnist

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Dear Dr. Komaroff: I saw an ad for something called a “tDCS brain-stimulating device.” It supposedly helps improve memory and thinking. Is it worth a try?

Dear Reader: Transcranial direct current stimulation transmits a current into the brain through electrodes (little metal plates) on the forehead or scalp. The current is weak; it comes from a 9-volt battery (the size used in a smoke detector). People who undergo tDCS may feel their scalp tingle and hear a humming noise. Doctors can control whether the current activates – or suppresses – the neurons in your brain that lie beneath the electrodes.

The technique of tDCS has been tried on and off for more than 100 years. The technique is different from another increasingly used technique, transcranial magnetic stimulation.

I spoke to Dr. Daniel Press, a neurologist with the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He said that brain stimulation, if used carefully, looks promising. That’s especially true if combined with other therapies. Several studies are underway to see if, and how, tDCS can be used to sharpen mental skills and treat symptoms of mind-body disorders.

For now, tDCS is only FDA-approved to speed the absorption of certain medications.