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tDCS of the DLPFC Treats Anhedonia in Depression & Improves Social Functioning (2024 Study)

In the quest to find more effective treatments for depression, particularly the challenging symptom of anhedonia, Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) emerges as a promising option.

This non-invasive brain stimulation technique targets specific brain regions to modulate activity and potentially alleviate symptoms.

A recent study has shed light on the efficacy and safety of targeting the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) to improve anhedonia in patients with depression, suggesting that tDCS could be a valuable adjuvant therapy.


  1. tDCS as a Neuromodulation Technique: Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive, safe, and low-cost brain stimulation method that uses a constant, low-intensity direct current to alter neuronal excitability.
  2. Targeting Anhedonia in Depression: Anhedonia, the loss of pleasure in all or most activities, is a core symptom of major depressive disorder (MDD) that is particularly resistant to traditional treatments.
  3. Focus on the DLPFC & OFC: The study explores the effects of stimulating the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) using tDCS to treat anhedonia in depression.
  4. Promising Results for DLPFC Stimulation: Stimulation of the DLPFC has shown significant improvement in anhedonia symptoms, indicating its potential as an effective treatment option.

Source: Journal of Affective Disorders (2024)

Anhedonia in Depression & the DLPFC

Anhedonia, defined as a diminished ability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, is a core symptom of major depressive disorder (MDD) and significantly impacts the quality of life and treatment outcomes for patients.

Its presence is often associated with more severe depression, greater social impairment, and a higher risk of suicide.

Traditional antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have limited efficacy in alleviating anhedonia, which has prompted research into alternative treatments.

The Role of the DLPFC in Anhedonia

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) plays a crucial role in cognitive functions such as decision-making, working memory, and executive functions.

It is also implicated in mood regulation and reward processing, making it a key area of interest in understanding and treating anhedonia.

The DLPFC’s involvement in reward circuitry suggests that dysregulation within this area could contribute to the diminished pleasure response seen in anhedonia.

How targeting the DLPFC could help anhedonia & depression

  1. Modulation of Reward Pathways: The DLPFC is part of the brain’s reward system, which also includes structures like the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal cortex. Stimulating the DLPFC can potentially enhance the functioning of this network, improving the brain’s reward response and, by extension, reducing anhedonia symptoms.
  2. Cognitive Control over Emotion: The DLPFC has a role in exerting cognitive control over emotions, including the regulation of negative affect. Enhancing DLPFC activity could improve emotional regulation, reducing the impact of negative stimuli and potentially increasing the capacity for experiencing pleasure.
  3. Neurotransmitter Release: Stimulation of the DLPFC can influence the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which are closely linked to mood regulation and the experience of pleasure. By modulating neurotransmitter levels, targeting the DLPFC may counteract the neurochemical deficiencies underlying anhedonia.

Major Findings: Clinical Trial of tDCS for Anhedonia in Depression (2024 Study)

1. Efficacy of tDCS on Anhedonia

The most significant finding from the trial was the improvement in anhedonia symptoms following tDCS treatment targeting the left DLPFC.

The study quantitatively measured this improvement through the Snaith-Hamilton Pleasure Scale (SHAPS), where participants receiving DLPFC stimulation showed a statistically significant reduction in SHAPS scores after the primary treatment phase (2 weeks), with a p-value of 0.028.

This indicates that anodal stimulation of the DLPFC can effectively enhance the capacity to experience pleasure, addressing the symptom of anhedonia more directly than traditional antidepressant treatments.

2. Social Functioning Enhancement

At the 8-week follow-up, both the DLPFC and OFC stimulation groups demonstrated significant improvements in social functioning compared to the sham group, with a p-value of 0.005.

This suggests that the benefits of tDCS extend beyond the immediate alleviation of depressive symptoms, potentially facilitating longer-term recovery in social domains impacted by depression and anhedonia.

3. Comparison with Sham Stimulation

Despite the specific improvements noted above, it’s important to highlight that the mood of patients in all three groups (DLPFC, OFC, and sham) was better at each evaluated time point compared to baseline.

However, there was no significant difference in the overall efficacy between these groups in terms of mood improvement (p > 0.05).

This observation suggests a possible placebo effect at play within the context of depression mood improvement, underscoring the complexity of treating mood disorders and the subjective experience of symptom relief.

tDCS Treatment for Anhedonia in Depression (2024 Clinical Trial)

Shuqi Kong et al. conducted a trial to evaluate the efficacy and safety of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) for improving anhedonia in patients with depression.


  • This study was structured as a randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled clinical trial, enrolling 70 patients experiencing both anhedonia and depressive episodes.
  • Participants were randomly divided into three groups based on the stimulation site: right OFC, left DLPFC, and sham stimulation.
  • The trial involved twelve 20-minute tDCS sessions, with ten sessions as the primary treatment and two as consolidation.
  • The primary outcome was assessed through changes in the Snaith-Hamilton Pleasure Scale (SHAPS) scores following the primary treatment phase.
  • Evaluations were conducted at baseline, immediately post-treatment, and at an 8-week follow-up to gauge the persistence of treatment effects.


  • The study’s results indicated that while all groups showed an improvement in mood from baseline, there was no significant difference in effectiveness among the three groups (p > 0.05) when it came to mood enhancement.
  • However, tDCS of the DLPFC significantly improved anhedonia symptoms after the primary treatment period (p = 0.028), showcasing its potential as an effective intervention for this particular symptom of depression.
  • Additionally, at the 8-week follow-up, both the DLPFC and OFC stimulation groups showed significant improvements in social functioning compared to the sham group (p = 0.005), suggesting sustained benefits of tDCS beyond immediate treatment effects.


  • The sample size was relatively small, with only about 23 or 24 patients in each group completing the study, potentially limiting the statistical power to detect differences between groups.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected patient follow-up and data collection, introducing additional challenges in assessing the long-term efficacy and safety of tDCS for treating anhedonia in depression.
  • These factors necessitate further research with larger sample sizes and more robust follow-up mechanisms to validate these preliminary findings.

tDCS in Treating Depression & Anhedonia (Possible Mechanisms of Action)

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that applies a low-intensity electrical current to the scalp, modulating neuronal activity.

The mechanisms by which tDCS exerts its effects on depression and anhedonia symptoms are multifaceted.

  • Neuronal Excitability: tDCS can increase (anodal stimulation) or decrease (cathodal stimulation) neuronal excitability. Anodal tDCS applied to the DLPFC is thought to enhance cortical activity in this region, potentially restoring the diminished neural responsiveness associated with anhedonia and depression.
  • Neuroplasticity: By altering neuronal excitability, tDCS may promote neuroplastic changes in the brain. These changes can strengthen neural connections within the reward circuitry and cognitive control networks, improving symptoms of depression and anhedonia over time.
  • Neurotransmitter Regulation: tDCS influences the release of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward system, and serotonin, which is important for mood regulation. Modulating the levels of these neurotransmitters can address the chemical imbalances present in depression and anhedonia.
  • Functional Connectivity: tDCS can affect the functional connectivity between different brain regions involved in mood regulation and reward processing. By enhancing connectivity within these networks, tDCS may improve the integration of cognitive and emotional processes, reducing symptoms of anhedonia and depression.

tDCS on the DLPFC for Anhedonia & Depression (Recommendations)

  1. Consult with a Healthcare Professional: Before initiating tDCS treatment, individuals should consult with a qualified healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist or neurologist, who is knowledgeable about tDCS and its applications in depression.
  2. Individualized Treatment Plan: Develop an individualized treatment plan tailored to the patient’s specific needs, including the frequency, duration, and intensity of tDCS sessions targeting the DLPFC.
  3. Electrode Placement & Montage: Ensure proper placement of the electrodes over the scalp to effectively target the DLPFC. The anode should be positioned over the left DLPFC, while the cathode can be placed over a reference area such as the contralateral supraorbital region.
  4. Stimulation Parameters: Set stimulation parameters based on established guidelines and evidence-based protocols. Typically, a current intensity of 1-2 mA and a duration of 20-30 minutes per session are recommended for tDCS targeting the DLPFC.
  5. Monitoring & Supervision: Monitor the patient closely during tDCS sessions to assess for any adverse effects or discomfort. It’s advisable to have a trained healthcare professional supervise the sessions, especially initially, to ensure safety and efficacy.
  6. Adherence to Safety Precautions: Adhere to safety precautions, including avoiding concurrent use of medications or substances that may lower the seizure threshold, ensuring proper electrode hygiene, and monitoring for skin irritation or burns.
  7. Regular Evaluation & Adjustment: Regularly evaluate the patient’s response to tDCS treatment, including monitoring changes in depressive symptoms and anhedonia severity. Based on the patient’s progress and any observed side effects, adjust the treatment parameters as needed.
  8. Integration with Comprehensive Treatment Plan: Integrate tDCS into a comprehensive treatment plan for depression, which may include psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, lifestyle modifications, and other adjunctive therapies. tDCS should be considered as part of a multimodal approach to optimize treatment outcomes.
  9. Continued Follow-up & Support: Provide ongoing support and follow-up care to monitor the long-term efficacy and safety of tDCS treatment. Encourage open communication between the patient and healthcare provider to address any concerns or questions that may arise during the course of treatment.

Conclusion: tDCS for Anhedonia in Depression

The randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled clinical trial investigating the efficacy of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) for anhedonia in depression has generated valuable insights.

The study’s findings highlight the potential of targeting the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) with tDCS as an effective intervention for alleviating anhedonia symptoms.

While all groups exhibited improvements in mood, significant reductions in anhedonia were observed specifically in the group receiving anodal stimulation of the DLPFC.

These results underscore the importance of personalized, targeted neuromodulation techniques in addressing the complex symptomatology of depression.

Moving forward, larger-scale studies are warranted to confirm these findings, refine treatment protocols, and better understand the mechanisms underlying tDCS’s therapeutic effects on anhedonia within the context of depression.

Overall, this study contributes to the growing body of evidence supporting tDCS as a promising adjunctive therapy for enhancing the treatment outcomes of individuals struggling with anhedonia in depression.


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