High-definition Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (HD-tDCS) in Late-life Depression (LLD)

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) logo

The University of Hong Kong (HKU)




Depression in Old Age


Device: High-definition Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation

Study type


Funder types




Details and patient eligibility


To determine the efficacy of a 2-week daily programme (10 sessions) of HD-tDCS to augment antidepressant therapy in subjects with late-life depression who had residual depressive symptoms despite adequate dosage and duration of antidepressant therapy.

Full description

Background: Hong Kong is facing a significant challenge in ageing population. A significant proportion of older adults suffered from depression. As the local population is ageing rapidly, the burden of late-life depression (LLD) will continue to increase. LLD is associated with a poorer long term prognosis, a more chronic course and a higher relapse rate comparing with adult-onset depression. Treatment response towards medication is unsatisfactory. Over 50% of patients with LLD do not achieve symptomatic remission. With the growing ageing population in Hong Kong, LLD becomes a pressing problem. The mainstream treatment of LLD is antidepressant and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Despite these methods being shown to be effective, there are limitations in each of these treatments. A new treatment option or augmentation therapy would be needed to improve the treatment response in LLD. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive neurostimulation method. It applies a weak, direct electric current over the scalp region. It is a very safe intervention tool. It exerts the treatment effect probably through the change in the activity of neurons and modulation in synaptic release probability uptake and sensitivity. It enhances the long-term plasticity (LTP) and changes the rate of neurotransmitter release. High-definition tDCS (HD-tDCS) allows for more accuracy and focus on targeting the specific brain region. Recent evidence suggested that tDCS and serotonin enhance each other's function. Controversial outcomes were reported in previous randomised controlled trials (RCT) focusing on adult patients with depression. There is no RCT done among patients with LLD. An open-label pilot study was conducted by our team in 2018 which showed a significant improvement in depressive symptoms and mild improvement in cognitive domains after 2 weeks of HD-tDCS intervention. Objectives: This study is a double-blinded randomized sham-controlled trial to test the effectiveness of HD-tDCS as augmentation therapy for antidepressants in patients with LLD. The investigators hypothesized that active HD-tDCS is significantly more effective than sham control in reducing depressive symptoms. Design: The current study is a 2-week intervention trial of HD-tDCS with 4-week and 12-week post-intervention observation. All eligible participants must receive at least four weeks of antidepressant treatment before the tDCS intervention. Then they will be randomised to receive either active HD-tDCS (a-HD-tDCS) or sham-HD-tDCS (s-HD-tDCS) intervention for two weeks with five sessions per week. Both the participants and the investigators responsible for assessments and data analysis will be blinded to the group allocation. Total ten sessions HD-tDCS will be delivered. Each session would last for 30 minutes. After HD-tDCS intervention, participants would continue their medications for at least for 12 more weeks until all post-intervention assessments are complete. Data Analysis: Primary outcome and secondary outcomes assessment would be carried out at baseline, immediately after the intervention and follow up assessments at 4 and 12 weeks. The primary outcome will be the change of Hamilton depression rating scale (HAM-D-17). Secondary outcomes will include cognitive assessments, anxiety symptoms, daily functioning and adverse effects of the intervention. Intention-to treat analysis would be carried out. Intention-to-treat analysis would be carried out. Significance: The result of the current study would provide further data on the effectiveness of HD-tDCS as augmentative therapy with antidepressants in LLD patients.


58 estimated patients




60+ years old


No Healthy Volunteers

Inclusion criteria

  1. 60 years of age or above
  2. Right-handedness, as determined by the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory (to homogenise neuroanatomical targeting)
  3. Chinese ethnicity
  4. Fulfil the criteria of Major Depressive Disorder (single or recurrent episode) and in partial remission, defined by the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
  5. Presence of mild to severe level of depressive symptoms measured and defined by HAM-D-17 score ≥8 and ≤ 52[22]
  6. Suboptimal treatment response with at least one adequate antidepressant trial defined as full or best tolerated doses at least 6 weeks
  7. Stable dosage of antidepressants or other treatments for depression in recent 4 weeks
  8. Valid informed written consent

Exclusion criteria

  1. A DSM-5 diagnosis other than Depressive Disorders (e.g., bipolar and related disorders, schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders).
  2. A Hong Kong Chinese version of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (HK-MoCA) score below the second percentile according to the subject's age and education level (to exclude subjects with existing dementia)
  3. Alcohol or substance dependence
  4. Active suicidal ideation or a suicide attempt within the past month
  5. Concomitant unstable medical condition or major neurological conditions
  6. Significant communication impairment

Trial design

Primary purpose




Interventional model

Parallel Assignment


Double Blind

58 participants in 2 patient groups

active HD-tDCS
Active Comparator group
The participants will be instructed to relax during the first 5 minutes of the session while the equipment is set up. A mild stimulation (with a level of only 2 milliamps stimulation) will be delivered for 20 minutes, with the current gradually increased and decreased over 30 seconds. The patients will be instructed to relax and remain motionless during the intervention. The administrator will closely monitor the impedance throughout each session and record any side effects experienced by the participants. The participants will be allowed 5 minutes of rest after the intervention and will be actively asked about any discomfort. Each session will last around 30 minutes, with a total of 10 sessions (two consecutive weeks of treatment for 5 days per week).
Device: High-definition Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation
Sham Comparator group
The procedure for sham stimulation will be identical, except that the current will be gradually ramped down to zero after the first 30 s, thus giving the same initial sensation of HD-tDCS. The stimulator will be programmed to switch the current on and off, so no intervention by the operator will be required. The computer will be placed behind the subjects' heads so they cannot see the readout.
Device: High-definition Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation

Trial contacts and locations



Central trial contact

Pak Wing Calvin Cheng

Data sourced from clinicaltrials.gov

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