Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive method of electrical stimulation of the brain using a weak direct current applied to the scalp through electrodes. The aim is to modify cortical excitability and activity in the brain areas under the scalp electrodes. It is thought to work by the depolarisation and hyperpolarisation of cortical neurons.
It has been four weeks since I started transcranial direct current stimulation therapy (tDCS), which is four weeks of going down to the hospital every weekday for a thirty minute session of getting my brain zapped. A shout-out and huge thank you, by the way, t the boyfriend and the mother for sending me there and back.
This post is going to be slightly lengthy. It’s basically going to be about my experience with tDCS thus far, including the effects on my mood and the process. Some background on my history – I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder when I was 14, and have been on meds since. My psychiatrist has told me that my condition seems to be rather medication-resistant. Even so, I’m still on several meds that help me function. I recently suffered a major relapse last year, with no identifiable trigger. Ironically, I’d still say that I’m recovering. Relapscovering? Recolapsing?
Highlights from my progress log
A noticeable change in mood was observed by the boyfriend and the sister within the first week, who told me that I seemed happier, particularly after a tDCS session. The second week, my DASS-21 score for depression was at its lowest (9) for the past month. However, my anxiety score was at its highest (18). On the third week, not much change was observed. The fourth week, I got yet another panic attack, but this time I didn’t have any medication with me because I ran out.
As for my own thoughts and feelings, it seems that I have regained some of my capacity to feel joy. As all depressives know, depression isn’t just sadness – it limits the capacity to feel joy greatly. So it is quite refreshing to experience this growth in capacity after six years, although the sadness* is never truly gone. There is the fear, however, of the effects of tDCS being temporary, which prevents me from fully embracing this newfound capacity.
On the first session, I had to go through a whole series of inventories. Some parts, I recognised from the DASS. I also had to go through a pretty long cognitive test. When I asked the doctor whether the tDCS would affect my cognition, he said no, so either he’s lying in an attempt to soothe (or pacify) me, or there’s absolutely no point in going through the cognitive test. Then begins the process that I go through every session:
My temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate are taken before all else. Then, the nurse measures the dimensions of my head, does some calculations, and marks three X’s on my head – the dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC; see image), above the eyebrow, and on the crown of my head. An elastic band is attached to my head. Two electrode pads soaked in saline solution are then held in place, on the X’s, by the elastic band.
After I have been hooked up to the tDCS machine, the doctor turns it on, and I can feel the electrical currents. They are rather uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t say that they hurt. I’m sure it would hurt for the slightly more sensitive, though. It’s a stinging sensation that I don’t notice much of after a few minutes. About twenty minutes in, I start to get a headache (or my headache worsens). Ten minutes later, the machine turns itself off and I’m shocked by a sudden jolt of electricity and a flash of light that seems to be coming from the top right (of course, there is no light).
The headache will continue to worsen for a few hours after the session before it gets a little bit better. The headaches increasingly got worse from the first to third week, although they weren’t as bad in the fourth week. From the first to third week, the headache would take the weekend to subside. On Monday, by the time the headache is gone, it’s time for another session. So, it was three weeks of a non-stop headache that made me intolerable of loud noises.
Yup, that’s about it for the tDCS sessions thus far. Hopefully, this post has been somewhat informative and interesting. Note, however, that I am neither recommending nor am I advising anyone against tDCS. You should do more research and talk to a specialised doctor about it before deciding to zap your brain.
*The term “sadness” definitely does not do justice to what depression feels like. It’s just a term I have decided to use instead of attempting to explain the anguish every time I mention depression. Depression is melancholy, emptiness, self-hatred, frustration, a capping of emotions, an involuntary suppression of emotions, and so much more.