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Comparative efficacy and acceptability of non-surgical brain stimulation for the acute treatment of major depressive episodes in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Julian Mutz, Vijeinika Vipulananthan, Ben Carter, René Hurlemann, Cynthia H.Y. Fu, Allan H. Young

Original languageEnglish
Article numberl1079
Number of pages13
JournalBMJ (Online)
Issue number0
Early online date27 Mar 2019
Accepted/In press28 Feb 2019
E-pub ahead of print27 Mar 2019
Published27 Mar 2019


King's Authors


Objective To estimate the comparative clinical efficacy and acceptability of non-surgical brain stimulation for the acute treatment of major depressive episodes in adults. 

Design Systematic review with pairwise and network meta-analysis. Data sources Electronic search of Embase, PubMed/Medline, and PsycINFO up to 8 May 2018, supplemented by manual searches of bibliographies of several reviews (published between 2009 and 2018) and included trials. Eligibility criteria for selecting studies Clinical trials with random allocation to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), transcranial magnetic stimulation (repetitive (rTMS), accelerated, priming, deep, and synchronised), theta burst stimulation, magnetic seizure therapy, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), or sham therapy. 

Main outcome measures Primary outcomes were response (efficacy) and all cause discontinuation (discontinuation of treatment for any reason) (acceptability), presented as odds ratios with 95% confidence intervals. Remission and continuous depression severity scores after treatment were also examined. 

Results 113 trials (262 treatment arms) that randomised 6750 patients (mean age 47.9 years; 59% women) with major depressive disorder or bipolar depression met the inclusion criteria. The most studied treatment comparisons were high frequency left rTMS and tDCS versus sham therapy, whereas recent treatments remain understudied. The quality of the evidence was typically of low or unclear risk of bias (94 out of 113 trials, 83%) and the precision of summary estimates for treatment effect varied considerably. In network meta-analysis, 10 out of 18 treatment strategies were associated with higher response compared with sham therapy: bitemporal ECT (summary odds ratio 8.91, 95% confidence interval 2.57 to 30.91), high dose right unilateral ECT (7.27, 1.90 to 27.78), priming transcranial magnetic stimulation (6.02, 2.21 to 16.38), magnetic seizure therapy (5.55, 1.06 to 28.99), bilateral rTMS (4.92, 2.93 to 8.25), bilateral theta burst stimulation (4.44, 1.47 to 13.41), low frequency right rTMS (3.65, 2.13 to 6.24), intermittent theta burst stimulation (3.20, 1.45 to 7.08), high frequency left rTMS (3.17, 2.29 to 4.37), and tDCS (2.65, 1.55 to 4.55). Network meta-analytic estimates of active interventions contrasted with another active treatment indicated that bitemporal ECT and high dose right unilateral ECT were associated with increased response. All treatment strategies were at least as acceptable as sham therapy. 

Conclusions These findings provide evidence for the consideration of non-surgical brain stimulation techniques as alternative or add-on treatments for adults with major depressive episodes. These findings also highlight important research priorities in the specialty of brain stimulation, such as the need for further well designed randomised controlled trials comparing novel treatments, and sham controlled trials investigating magnetic seizure therapy.

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