Effectiveness of Noninvasive Brain Stimulation in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: A Meta-Analysis of Sham or Behaviour-Controlled Studies

SOURCE: Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. 46(6):E592-E614, 2021 Nov-Dec.

AUTHORS: Vergallito A; Gallucci A; Pisoni A; Punzi M; Caselli G; Ruggiero GM; Sassaroli S; Romero Lauro LJ

BACKGROUND: The possibility of using noninvasive brain stimulation to treat mental disorders has received considerable attention recently. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) are considered to be effective treatments for depressive symptoms. However, no treatment recommendation is currently available for anxiety disorders, suggesting that evidence is still limited. We conducted a systematic review of the literature and a
quantitative analysis of the effectiveness of rTMS and tDCS in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

METHODS: Following PRISMA guidelines, we screened 3 electronic databases up to the end of February 2020 for English-language, peer-reviewed articles that included the following: a clinical sample of patients with an anxiety disorder, the use of a noninvasive brain stimulation technique, the inclusion of a control condition, and pre/post scores on a validated questionnaire that measured symptoms of anxiety.

RESULTS: Eleven papers met the inclusion criteria, comprising 154 participants assigned to a stimulation condition and 164 to a sham or control group. We calculated Hedge’s g for scores on disorder-specific and general anxiety questionnaires before and after treatment to determine effect size, and we conducted 2 independent random-effects meta-analyses. Considering the well-known comorbidity between anxiety and depression, we ran a third meta-analysis analyzing outcomes for depression scores. Results showed a significant effect of noninvasive brain stimulation in reducing scores on disorder-specific and general anxiety questionnaires, as well as depressive symptoms, in the real stimulation compared to the control condition.

LIMITATIONS: Few studies met the inclusion criteria; more evidence is needed to strengthen conclusions about the effectiveness of noninvasive brain stimulation in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

CONCLUSION: Our findings showed that noninvasive brain stimulation reduced anxiety and depression scores compared to control conditions, suggesting that it can alleviate clinical symptoms in patients with anxiety disorders.