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There are several brain health interventions today, such as tDCS and TMS. Each brings unique attributes and benefits. If you are trying to optimize brain health, there are key factors to consider when choosing between the two. 

Announcement: Today, there are several treatments available to boost brain function. When comparing TMS and tDCS, it is essential to understand the distinctions and benefits as they apply to brain health. Both can boost brain function, and neither has severe side effects. However, tDCS can be done at home with FDA-approved medical devices, while TMS requires professional treatment. 

Understanding tDCS vs. TMS

tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) is a form of treatment where two electrodes are placed on either side of the forehead. These electrodes are attached to a battery or power source from which current flows to the electrodes and into the brain. 

Rudimentary devices can be purchased online, which rest around the head with two electrodes on either end. These types of devices contain small squares on either side, inside of which sit sponges designed to be soaked in salt water before use. At-home devices can be made with batteries, a hat, and electrodes. When done in a professional setting, you can expect the use of saline concentrations to ensure conductivity. 

Depending on what you want to improve, you can stimulate any part of the brain with mild electric current from tDCS. For example, if you want to decrease aggression, you might target the prefrontal cortex. 

TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) is a form of treatment that uses magnetic impulses, not electricity, to stimulate areas of the brain. You wear a device on your head, creating a magnetic field over the scalp. Then the device sends impulses at pinpointed locations in the brain to boost activity. In many cases, this is used to encourage blood flow to regions of the brain that have decreased activity. 

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What is the difference between TMS and tDCS?

There is more than one difference between tDCS and TMS, as it has to do with what conditions each is designed to treat, how effective each can be, and several other limitations. 


TMS is designed to treat severe cases of:

  • Depression
  • OCD
  • PTSD
  • Addiction

tDCS is designed to:

  • Boost performance
  • Improve motor skills
  • Modulate cognition

Current studies are investigating the potential of tDCS in improving symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and dementia

With TMS, you must receive treatment from a specialized facility with the necessary equipment. You can come in for an outpatient session as agreed upon by a mental health professional. While you can find tDCS treatment in professional settings, it is also something you can do at home. 


The effects of TMS can last several months or years in some patients. It is currently an effective acute treatment for medication-resistant depression and other severe disorders. However, patients may need ongoing treatment months or years after the effects wear off. Similarly, this has to be part of a larger treatment plan that involves things like diet, exercise, and psychotherapy to be most effective. 

The effects of tDCS wear off after several hours. This is currently designed as a short-term form of treatment to boost performance. The military uses tDCS with pilots prior to simulation training to improve their performance.


The cost of tDCS is minimal if you are doing it at home, with legitimate devices sold for a few hundred dollars. However, TMS is much more expensive because it relies on modern equipment, professional facilities, and several sessions. 

TMS vs. tDCS: Similarities

Both TMS and tDCS are designed to offer acute improvement. ‘Acute’ in this case means short-term improvement. However, there is a distinct difference in the timelines for each; TMS can provide months or years of improvement, whereas tDCS only offers a few hours of improvement. 

  • TMS and tDCS both improve brain function without invasive procedures. 
  • Both forms of treatment can be used as outpatient procedures.
  • Either form can be completed in as little as 15-20 minutes per day.

Neither tDCS nor TMS are invasive procedures. This means there is no penetration of the skin or surgery required. Both are outpatient procedures that do not take very long, meaning patients can complete sessions daily over several weeks or months without too much time requirement. 

Both procedures are relatively safe with minimal side effects. The biggest side effects of TMS involve mild discomfort and twitching in the scalp. Tingling is the most common side effect of tDCS, though longitudinal studies have yet to research the long-term side effects it could potentially have. 

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When to choose tDCS vs. TMS

Choosing between tDCS vs. TMS means considering the cost, time, needs, side effects, effectiveness, and your overall mental health treatment plan. 

Due to how it works, tDCS can target any part of the brain, so long as the region is near the cortical surface. The electrodes used in tDCS cannot penetrate deep regions of the brain. 

For conditions that require deep brain penetration, TMS is much better. TMS can target broader, deeper parts of the brain, sending magnetic signals to prefrontal cortex regions. 

Deciding between the two comes down to what you wish to achieve and how effectively you wish to achieve it. While tDCS can be easily done at home with a device purchased online, items cannot. TMS is intended for medical and therapeutic settings. 

You are more likely to see an improvement in conditions treated with TMS. While tDCS is effective, it is a short-term treatment for acute improvement. It is always best to speak with a mental health professional about the strengths and weaknesses of each method, the benefits and limitations of both tDCS and TMS and the key factors to consider when choosing between tDCS and TMS for your brain health.


Understanding the difference between tDCS and TMS can help you decide between TMS and tDCS for optimizing brain health. Making the best decision for your neural improvement comes down to what fits your needs and what is affordable and safe.