Brain stimulation can treat depression and anxiety in older people

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A novel study from the University of Florida has brought new hope to older adults suffering from depression and anxiety through a noninvasive brain stimulation technique.

The research highlights the potential of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as a promising, drug-free treatment option for mental health issues, which are common among one in four older adults.

The study, published in the journal Brain Stimulation, involved nearly 400 participants at the University of Florida and the University of Arizona. These participants were primarily older adults who were randomly assigned to one of two groups.

The first group received 12 weeks of tDCS combined with cognitive training aimed at improving memory and processing speed. The second group received the same cognitive training but with a placebo version of the tDCS.

tDCS works by delivering a mild electrical current through electrodes placed on the head, targeting the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain crucial for cognition and emotional regulation.

This method has been considered safe and is already approved in countries like South Korea for at-home treatment of depression.

The findings revealed that the most significant improvements were seen in participants with higher levels of depression and anxiety before the treatment.

Those with moderate to severe state anxiety, which relates to anxiety experienced in response to stressful situations, particularly benefited from tDCS. The positive effects for these participants were sustained even at a one-year follow-up.

Adam Woods, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and an associate dean at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, emphasized the importance of accessible treatments for mental health, especially as we age.

Traditional treatments like medication and therapy can be effective but aren’t suitable for everyone due to issues like non-responsiveness to drugs or the inability to participate in intensive therapy programs.

Interestingly, the study also found that tDCS could improve symptoms of subclinical depression and anxiety—conditions that may not be severe enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis but are still associated with cognitive decline in older adults.

The researchers meticulously controlled for various factors, such as the influence of prescription medications on the study’s outcomes.

Their thorough approach revealed that the group receiving the real tDCS treatment showed significant improvements in symptoms of mild depression and moderate to severe state anxiety compared to those who received the placebo.

Hanna Hausman, the study’s lead author and a clinical psychology Ph.D. student, noted that while the results in reducing psychological symptoms in individuals with diagnosed psychiatric disorders were expected, the positive outcomes in older adults without significant psychiatric histories were both surprising and encouraging.

This underscores the broad potential of tDCS as a therapy.

Given these promising results, the next steps involve a phase 3 randomized clinical trial to further assess the effects of tDCS combined with cognitive training on anxiety among a larger and more diverse group of older adults.

The potential for tDCS to be used at home and integrated with existing mental health therapies, or as a standalone intervention, offers a cost-effective and accessible solution.

This could be especially beneficial for those who face barriers to accessing traditional clinical care, potentially transforming how mental health issues are treated in the aging population.

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The research findings can be found in Brain Stimulation.

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