Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) consists of applying a weak direct current on the scalp, a portion of which crosses the skull (Datta et al., 2009) and induces cortical changes (Fregni and Pascual-Leone, 2007; Nitsche et al., 2008). The investigation of the application of electricity over the brain dates back to at least 200 years, when Giovanni Aldini (Zaghi et al., 2010) recommended galvanism for patients with deafness, amaurosis and “insanity”, reporting good results with this technique especially when used in patients with “melancholia”. Aldini also used tDCS in patients with symptoms of personality disorders and supposedly reported complete rehabilitation following transcranial administration of electric current (Parent, 2004).
These earliest studies used rudimentary batteries and so were constant voltage, where the resulting current depends on a variable body resistance. Over the 20th century, direct voltage continued to be used but most testing involved pulsed stimulation, starting with basic devices where a mechanical circuit that intermittently connected and broke the circuit between the battery and the subject and evolving to modern current control circuits including Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation and its variants (Guleyupoglu et al., 2013). Interest in direct current stimulation (or tDCS) resurged with the studies of Priori et al. (1998) and Nitsche and Paulus (2000) that demonstrated weak direct current could change cortical response to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, thereby indicating that tDCS could change cortical “excitability”. Testing for clinical and cognitive modification soon followed (Fregni et al., 2005, 2006). Developments and challenges in tDCS research, including applications in the treatment of neuro-psychiatrics disease since 1998 have been reviewed in detailed elsewhere (Brunoni et al., 2012).
This historical note aims to explore earlier data on human trial using current controlled stimulation (tDCS) before 1998 with the goal of informing ongoing understanding and development of tDCS protocols. As expected, we found variability in the quality of trial design, data collection and reporting in these earlier studies. Nonetheless, many clinical findings are broadly consistent with modern efforts, including some encouraging results but also variability across subjects. We also describe a significant difference in dose with lower current, smaller electrodes and much longer durations (up to 11 h) than used in modern tDCS.