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BMJ. 2019 Mar 27;364:l1079. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l1079.

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.

Author information

Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, London SE5 8AF, UK
South London and Maudsley Foundation NHS Trust, London, UK.
Department of Biostatistics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK.
Department of Psychiatry and Division of Medical Psychology, University of Bonn Medical Centre, Bonn, Germany.
School of Psychology, College of Applied Health and Communities, University of East London, London, UK.
Centre for Affective Disorders, Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK.



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


Systematic review with pairwise and network meta-analysis.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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Conflict of interest statement

Competing interests: All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at and declare: JM received funding as a student from the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstifung des Deutschen Volkes) and a board grant from the International Master in Affective Neuroscience programme of Maastricht University and the University of Florence in support of this work. He declares current studentship funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Eli Lilly outside of this work. AHY is employed by King’s College London and is an honorary consultant at SLaM (NHS UK). He discloses being paid for lectures and advisory boards for the following companies with drugs used in affective and related disorders: AstraZenaca, Eli Lilly, Lundbeck, Sunovion, Servier, Livanova, and Janssen. He is a consultant to Johnson and Johnson. He declares no shareholdings in pharmaceutical companies. He declares lead investigator status for Embolden Study (AstraZeneca), BCI Neuroplasticity study, and Aripiprazole Mania Study, and investigator initiated studies from AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Lundbeck, Wyeth, and Janssen. He acknowledges grant funding (past and present) from National Institute of Mental Health (USA), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Canada), National Alliance for the Research of Schizophrenia and Depression (USA), Stanley Medical Research Institute (USA), Medical Research Council (UK), Wellcome Trust (UK), Royal College of Physicians (Edinburgh), British Medical Association (UK), UBC-VGH Foundation (Canada), WEDC Foundation (Canada), CCS Depression Research Fund (Canada), Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (Canada), NIHR (UK), and Janssen (UK) all outside of the submitted work.

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