Neurocognitive effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in unipolar and bipolar depression: Findings from an international randomized controlled trial

Shawn M. McClintock, Donel M. Martin, Sarah H. Lisanby, Angelo Alonzo, William M. McDonald, Scott T. Aaronson, Mustafa M. Husain, John P. O'Reardon, Cynthia Shannon Weickert, Adith Mohan, Colleen K. Loo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Objective: Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has been found to have antidepressant effects and may have beneficial neurocognitive effects. However, prior research has produced an unclear understanding of the neurocognitive effects of repeated exposure to tDCS. The study's aim was to determine the neurocognitive effects following tDCS treatment in participants with unipolar or bipolar depression. Method: The study was a triple-masked, randomized, controlled clinical trial across six international academic medical centers. Participants were randomized to high dose (2.5 mA for 30 min) or low dose (0.034 mA, for 30 min) tDCS for 20 sessions over 4 weeks, followed by an optional 4 weeks of open-label high dose treatment. The tDCS anode was centered over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex at F3 (10/20 EEG system) and the cathode over F8. Participants completed clinical and neurocognitive assessments before and after tDCS. Genotype (BDNF Val66Met and catechol-o-methyltransferase [COMT] Val158Met polymorphisms) were explored as potential moderators of neurocognitive effects. Results: The study randomized 130 participants. Across the participants, tDCS treatment (high and low dose) resulted in improvements in verbal learning and recall, selective attention, information processing speed, and working memory, which were independent of mood effects. Similar improvements were observed in the subsample of participants with bipolar disorder. There was no observed significant effect of tDCS dose. However, BDNF Val66Met and COMT Val158Met polymorphisms interacted with tDCS dose and affected verbal memory and verbal fluency outcomes, respectively. Conclusions: These findings suggest that tDCS could have positive neurocognitive effects in unipolar and bipolar depression. Thus, tDCS stimulation parameters may interact with interindividual differences in BDNF and COMT polymorphisms to affect neurocognitive outcomes, which warrants further investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)261-272
Number of pages12
JournalDepression and anxiety
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • bipolar disorder
  • depression
  • major depressive disorder
  • neurocognition
  • neuropsychology
  • tDCS
  • transcranial direct current stimulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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