Typical treatments for anxiety symptoms are talk therapy, medications, or a combination of both. Another helpful option is cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) through an Alpha-Stim device. The Alpha-Stim device works with the brain to reduce mood and sleep symptoms.
Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation and Alpha-Stim
CES is a treatment in which a pulsed, low-intensity electrical current stimulates the brain. The current flows through a pair of electrodes applied to specific spots on the head, such as the earlobes or temples.
The idea of running electricity through the brain may give some people pause. Still, CES delivers only 50–500 millionths of an ampere, a minuscule amount.
CES is different from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or electroshock therapy. A healthcare provider administers ECT with general anesthesia to treat severe depression and mania. Often, healthcare providers only advise ECT when no other treatment helps.
CES arose as a treatment for mental health conditions in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the Alpha-Stim Anxiety Insomnia and Depression (AID) device had become a commonly used CES device.
AID is a mobile, phone-sized device with electrodes you clip onto your earlobes and requires batteries. People can use AID at home or in a clinical setting.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the Alpha-Stim AID device to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia. An Alpha-Stim M device also treats those conditions, as well as acute, chronic, or post-traumatic pain.
How Does Alpha-Stim Device Treatment Work?
The Alpha-Stim AID device uses the CES process to work with the nervous system to get cell signals functioning normally. Your nervous system is the control center for your mood. Cells in the nervous system communicate throughout your body and brain, using chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine.
Neurotransmitters can throw off how different parts of the brain process emotions and how you express them if they are out of balance and their receptors do not work correctly. As a result, mood disorders like depression and anxiety can develop.
Of note, the time that you need to benefit from Alpha-Stim devices will vary. Some people may have immediate relief, while others may need to use the device multiple times.
What Have Researchers Found?
Research has found that Alpha-Stim is an effective treatment for anxiety. However, research has been somewhat mixed about how much more effective Alpha-Stim is than sham devices, or ones that look similar to Alpha-Stim devices but do not work.
One study published in 2014 compared outcomes for people using Alpha-Stim against those who used a sham treatment. The sham device did not emit electricity. The researchers found that people who used Alpha-Stim had more than a three-time decrease in anxiety symptoms and a 12-time decrease in depression symptoms.
Another study published in 2023 determined that the Alpha-Stim AID device can help people with major depressive disorder (MDD). The researchers found no notable difference in symptom reduction between active Alpha-Stim and sham devices.
Overall, research has found that Alpha-Stim devices are safe. Treatment is relatively free of side effects. Headaches have been reported in 0.1% of people, and skin irritation in about 0.07%.
What Else To Know About Alpha-Stim Treatment
You will need a healthcare provider's prescription if you live in the United States and want to try Alpha-Stim. The Alpha-Stim AID device costs $840, while the Alpha-Stim M costs $1,299. Although expensive, Alpha-Stim may still be less expensive than other mental health treatments.
You will have to contact an insurance company to find out if there is any coverage or reimbursement for purchasing the device. You may also qualify for financing or flexible payment options.
A Quick Review
Alpha-Stim uses cranial electrotherapy stimulation, a low-current electricity treatment. The device is safe and effective. The Food and Drug Administration has cleared it to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, and pain symptoms.
You can only purchase Alpha-Stim devices with a prescription from a healthcare provider. Insurance may not cover the cost of the device. Talk with a healthcare provider to determine if Alpha-Stim, or other mental health treatments, would suit you.
Brunyé TT, Patterson JE, Wooten T, et al. A critical review of cranial electrotherapy stimulation for neuromodulation in clinical and non-clinical samples. Front Hum Neurosci. 2021;15:625321. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2021.625321
Barclay TH, Barclay RD. A clinical trial of cranial electrotherapy stimulation for anxiety and comorbid depression. J Affect Disord. 2014;164:171-177. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.04.029
Patel S, Boutry C, Patel P, et al. A randomised controlled trial investigating the clinical and cost-effectiveness of Alpha-Stim AID cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) in patients seeking treatment for moderate severity depression in primary care (Alpha-Stim-d trial). Trials. 2022;23(1):250. doi:10.1186/s13063-022-06192-1
Alpha-Stim. FDA "cleared" versus "approved": What's the difference?.
Alpha-Stim. Alpha-Stim FAQ.
Alpha-Stim. Alpha-Stim technology.
Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, et al. Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain–gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:44. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
Liu Y, Zhao J, Guo W. Emotional roles of mono-aminergic neurotransmitters in major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders. Front Psychol. 2018;9:2201. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02201
Griffiths C, Leathlean C, Smart D, et al. Alpha-Stim cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) for anxiety treatment: Outcomes in a United Kingdom (UK) primary care practice. OJPsych. 2021;11(03):186-201. doi:10.4236/ojpsych.2021.113015
Morriss R, Patel S, Boutry C, et al. Clinical effectiveness of active Alpha-Stim AID versus sham Alpha-Stim AID in major depression in primary care in England (Alpha-stim-d): A multicentre, parallel group, double-blind, randomised controlled trial. Lancet Psychiatry. 2023;10(3):172-183. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(23)00007-X