A new trial is testing electric therapy from patients’ homes. But is it safe?


There are two main treatments for depression; medication and behavioral therapy. Until now a third option, electrical therapy could only be conducted inside a clinic but a trial based in Melbourne could soon allow it to be done inside a patient's home.

In the comfort of his own home, Aaron Grinter is administering a new treatment that could change his life.

The 30-year-old has battled depression for more than 10 years and has taken the first steps to improve his mental health.

He is participating in a trial that uses electricity to increase the activity of neurons in his brain.

"This treatment seems different because it's not any of the things that are available at the moment, and it's non-invasive," Aaron said.

The practice is called Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS) and it is part of a trial run by Paul Fitzgerald at the Epworth Centre for Innovation and Mental Health.

It involves wearing a cap with two electrodes on it that passes a low electric current through the brain with the goal of stimulating various networks throughout the brain.

It is a relatively new form of brain stimulation, that has been conducted out of hospitals and clinics, but now a portable version is being trialed in people's homes.

Mr Fitzgerald believes it could be a "game-changing intervention" for depression that could dramatically lower the cost and increase access to patients.

"This is the first trial really anywhere in the world that has adopted the fully personalised approach that we use; we individualised the frequency based on each individual's own brain activity," said Mr Fitzgerald.

For four weeks participants wear the cap for 20 minutes a day once a day for the first and fourth week and twice a day for the second and third week.

The trial is for people aged 16-30 who have been diagnosed with depression.

Mr Fitzgerald says the participants come into the clinic to have the electrical activity of their brain scanned.

Then they run a number of cognitive tests to assess their memory, verbal fluency and numerical fluency.

"What we're really trying to do is to tap into the intrinsic language of the brain and apply stimulation at a frequency that interacts with the brain and causes subtle changes over time in those brainwaves to achieve therapeutic benefits," said Mr Fitzgerald.

Clair Paul is a 30-year-old student based in Melbourne who finished the trial in February.

She's been struggling with depression and anxiety for four years, the first time she noticed something was wrong was in 2015.

She was walking along the street and her brain was "fuzzy" and without realising she walked out in front of a tram.

"I didn't know it at the time but I was having a panic attack," Clair said.

Having tried medication and therapy she was after another treatment and she found out about the trial through social media.

Initially, she said she was skeptical of whether it was working, but after two to three weeks she began to feel "lighter and a lot more positive" about her life.

She was able to focus and concentrate more in her studies for a few months but she's recently felt the effects have dropped off and her depression/anxiety is creeping in again.

This has given her concerns that the effects of the cap aren't long-lasting.

"When you feel well for the first time in a long time it's really disappointing when you start to sort of, you feel like you're going downhill again," Clair said.

"It's sad that I can't get more treatment and I would love this to be approved so I could do it every day."

Mr Fitzgerald says this is to be expected given depression comes in waves and it underlines how necessary it is to find new, fundamentally safe and effective treatments for depression.

"In Australia, we've done a great job in reducing the stigma so that people come forward seeking treatment, Mr Fitgerald said.

"But we've invested a fraction of the amount into developing new treatments to help patients once they come forward."

Looking to the future Aaron is hopeful that he'll see some minor changes in his life surrounding his mood and how he feels about the work.

"I don't want to be a fundamentally different person but I would just like to have a bit more motivation and feel a bit more connected to the rest of the world," Aaron said.

The You-tACS study is continuing to recruit participants. For more information, visit the website: https://landing.epworth.org.au/tacs