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tDCS for the Treatment of Cravings in Drug Addiction (2023 Review)

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) emerges as a promising, noninvasive treatment for reducing cravings in substance addiction.

This technique involves the use of scalp electrodes to modulate neural activity, influencing cravings associated with drug addiction or substance dependence.

Despite its promise, further research is needed to standardize protocols and understand long-term efficacy.


  • tDCS significantly reduces cravings for opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, and tobacco, but not for alcohol or cannabis.
  • The most effective tDCS parameters include bilateral stimulation, anodal placement on the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a current intensity of 1.5 to 2 mA, a 20-minute session duration, and an electrode size of ≥35 cm².
  • tDCS works by modulating cortical excitability and connectivity, influencing brain regions related to craving and addiction.
  • Further research is needed to refine tDCS treatment parameters and confirm its long-term effectiveness in managing substance cravings.

Source: Psychiatry Research (2023)

Specific Types of Addiction vs. tDCS: Efficacy

tDCS has shown varying degrees of efficacy across different types of substance addiction:

  • Opioids: There is significant evidence supporting the efficacy of tDCS in reducing cravings for opioids.
  • Methamphetamine: Similar to opioids, tDCS has been effective in decreasing cravings for methamphetamine.
  • Cocaine: Studies show that tDCS can effectively reduce cravings for cocaine, indicating its potential in treating stimulant addiction.
  • Tobacco: tDCS has also been effective in managing cravings for tobacco, offering a potential treatment option for nicotine addiction.
  • Alcohol & Cannabis: The response to tDCS in alcohol and cannabis addiction is less clear, with studies showing minimal to no significant reduction in cravings.

tDCS Effects in Drug Addiction (Mechanisms & Duration)


tDCS influences addiction treatment through several mechanisms.

  • Modulation of Cortical Excitability: tDCS alters the resting membrane potential in neurons, thus modifying cortical excitability and potentially reducing cravings.
  • Neurotransmitter Regulation: It can modulate neurotransmitter systems, particularly dopamine, which plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward pathway.
  • Neural Connectivity: tDCS can influence the connectivity between different brain regions involved in craving and addiction, such as the prefrontal cortex and limbic system.


The duration of tDCS effects and the required treatment protocol can vary.

  • Immediate Effects: Some studies report immediate reductions in cravings following tDCS sessions.
  • Cumulative Effects: Repeated sessions can lead to cumulative effects, with more pronounced and lasting changes in cravings and addictive behaviors.
  • Number of Sessions: The effective number of tDCS sessions can range from a few to several weeks of daily or near-daily stimulation, depending on the substance and severity of addiction.
  • Maintenance Treatment: Following the initial treatment phase, periodic maintenance sessions may be necessary to sustain the benefits.
  • Individual Variability: Response to tDCS can vary greatly among individuals, necessitating a personalized approach to determine the optimal number and frequency of sessions.

Major Findings from the Review: tDCS for Cravings in Addiction (2023)

The systematic review and meta-analysis revealed nuanced insights into the efficacy of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in addiction treatment:

  • Substance-Specific Efficacy: The review identified that tDCS is particularly effective in reducing cravings for opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, and tobacco. However, its efficacy in treating alcohol and cannabis cravings was notably lower. This variation suggests that tDCS may interact differently with the neural circuits affected by different substances.
  • Optimal Stimulation Parameters: The findings emphasized the importance of specific tDCS parameters for effective treatment. Bilateral stimulation, particularly with anodal placement on the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), was most effective. Additionally, the review highlighted the need for a minimum electrode size and appropriate current intensity to achieve significant craving reduction.
  • Role of DLPFC: The prominent role of the DLPFC in craving and addiction management was underscored. This brain region is associated with executive function and decision-making, both of which are crucial in controlling addictive behaviors.
  • Heterogeneity & Publication Bias: The review noted significant heterogeneity among studies, indicating that the individual differences in addiction etiology and patient characteristics might influence tDCS efficacy. Also, the presence of publication bias, particularly in studies on opioids and tobacco, suggests the need for cautious interpretation of the results.

tDCS in Addiction Treatment (2023 Review Details)

Yi-Hsun Chan et al. conducted a review to analyze the efficacy of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in reducing cravings associated with substance addiction.

The review sought to understand how different tDCS parameters influence its effectiveness across various substances, including opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis.


  • Protocol & Guidelines: The review followed the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines.
  • Search: A comprehensive search was conducted in databases such as MEDLINE, Web of Science, Scopus, Embase, and the Cochrane database, including all articles published until March 31, 2023.
  • Study Selection: The review included randomized, sham-controlled trials focusing on the efficacy of tDCS in individuals with substance addiction. Studies focusing on cravings for food or behaviors unrelated to substance abuse were excluded.
  • Data: Standardized mean differences (SMDs) for alterations in craving scores were calculated using random-effects models. Subgroup analyses were also performed to understand the influence of different tDCS protocols and parameters.


  • Efficacy by Substance: tDCS showed a moderate reduction in cravings for opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, and tobacco. However, it was less effective for alcohol and cannabis cravings.
  • Optimal Parameters for tDCS: The most pronounced effects were seen with bilateral stimulation, anodal placement on the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a current intensity of 1.5 to 2 mA, 20-minute stimulation sessions, and an electrode size of ≥35 cm².


  • Small Sample Sizes & Study Variability: Many included studies had relatively small sample sizes, and there was considerable variability in methodology and stimulation parameters.
  • Publication Bias & Heterogeneity: High heterogeneity and publication bias in the studies could have influenced the findings.
  • Measurement and Methodological Differences: The lack of a standardized method for measuring cravings and differences in tDCS protocols across studies introduced potential biases.
  • Lack of Long-term Data: The review mostly included short-term studies, providing limited insight into the long-term efficacy of tDCS in addiction treatment.
  • Exclusion of Certain Studies: Some relevant studies might have been excluded due to the stringent selection criteria, particularly those not focusing directly on cravings or not using sham-controlled designs.

tDCS Protocols & Targets for Addiction Treatment

The effective application of tDCS in addiction treatment involves specific protocols and targets, as identified in the review:

  • Target Area: The most effective target area is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Stimulating the right DLPFC with the anodal electrode has shown the most pronounced reduction in cravings.
  • Stimulation Type: Bilateral stimulation, involving both hemispheres, is more effective compared to unilateral stimulation.
  • Current Intensity: The ideal range of current intensity is between 1.5 to 2 mA. This intensity is sufficient to modulate cortical excitability without causing discomfort or adverse effects.
  • Session Duration: Each tDCS session should ideally last for about 20 minutes. This duration is long enough to induce significant neuroplastic changes but short enough to avoid potential oversaturation effects.
  • Electrode Size: Electrodes with a surface area of at least 35 cm² are recommended for optimal results. Larger electrodes cover a broader area of the brain, potentially influencing a larger network involved in addiction.
  • Frequency of Treatment: The frequency of tDCS sessions varies across studies, but generally, a series of daily or weekly sessions is conducted. The exact frequency should be tailored based on individual responses and the specific addiction being treated.

Ideal Candidates for tDCS in Addiction Treatment

Selecting appropriate patients for transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in addiction treatment requires careful consideration of various factors.

tDCS is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and its efficacy can vary based on individual characteristics and the nature of the addiction.

  • Specific Types of Addictions: Patients with addiction to opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, and tobacco have shown more positive responses to tDCS. Conversely, those with alcohol or cannabis addiction might not experience the same level of benefit.
  • Early Stage of Addiction: Patients in the early stages of addiction might respond more positively to tDCS, as neural circuits may not be as deeply affected compared to those in advanced stages.
  • No Comorbid Conditions: Patients with co-occurring psychiatric conditions, such as severe depression or psychosis, may require more comprehensive treatment strategies. tDCS should be considered with caution in these cases, especially if these conditions could potentially influence the effectiveness or safety of tDCS.
  • Psychological Readiness: Patients who are motivated to overcome their addiction and are likely to comply with the treatment regimen, including attending regular sessions and following protocols, are ideal candidates.
  • Physical Health: Patients without significant neurological or scalp conditions, such as epilepsy or skin lesions at the electrode sites, are better candidates for tDCS.
  • Previous Treatment History: Patients who have not responded adequately to conventional treatments, such as pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy, might benefit from tDCS as an alternative or adjunctive treatment.
  • Low Risk Profile:  Patients without a history of adverse reactions to brain stimulation techniques or who are not at risk for such reactions could be considered suitable candidates for tDCS.
  • Adults: While the safety and efficacy of tDCS in adolescents or children with addiction are not well-established, adult patients are generally considered suitable candidates.

The ideal candidates for tDCS in addiction treatment are typically those with specific types of substance addiction, are in the earlier stages of addiction, have no severe comorbid psychiatric conditions, are motivated for treatment, are in good physical health, and have not responded adequately to traditional treatments.

Each patient should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, considering their unique circumstances and needs.

Safe Usage of tDCS in Addiction Treatment (Recommendations)

  • Professional Supervision: tDCS should be administered under the guidance of trained healthcare professionals to ensure safety and efficacy.
  • Personalized Treatment: Tailor the tDCS protocol to individual needs, considering factors such as the type of substance addiction, severity, and patient’s medical history.
  • As Monotherapy or Adjunct: tDCS can be used as a standalone treatment or as an adjunct to other treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or pharmacotherapy, depending on the specific needs of the patient.
  • Monitoring & Adjustment: Regular monitoring of the patient’s response to tDCS is essential, with adjustments made to the treatment protocol as necessary.
  • Informed Consent: Patients should be fully informed about the process, benefits, and potential risks of tDCS treatment.
  • Maintenance Sessions: Consider periodic maintenance tDCS sessions to sustain the benefits achieved from the initial treatment phase.

Takeaway: tDCS for Cravings & Addiction Treatment

The systematic review and meta-analysis provide compelling evidence that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is an effective, noninvasive tool for reducing cravings in certain types of substance addiction.

Its ability to modulate neural activity in key brain regions offers a promising avenue for addiction treatment.

While the findings show considerable potential, they also highlight the need for further research to refine tDCS protocols and understand long-term efficacy.

As we move forward, incorporating tDCS into clinical practice for addiction treatment should be approached with personalized protocols and professional oversight, ensuring safety and maximizing therapeutic benefits.


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