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Getting to know Flow Neuroscience – an at-home treatment for depression

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

Launched in 2016, Flow Neuroscience aims to offer an at-home treatment for people experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. It was founded by colleagues Daniel, a clinical psychologist, and Erik, a neuroscientist, with the aim of improving access to mental health treatment options.

Now offered by Pharmacy2U, Flow’s tDCS headset has shown promising results in effectively improving the lives of patients experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. This article looks at how the technology behind Flow Neuroscience works, what results it’s shown in NHS and other clinical trials so far, and how you can try the tDCS headset for yourself.

How common is depression in UK adults?

The latest available data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that on average, around 18% of people in the UK experienced moderate to severe symptoms of depression between June 2020 and October 2022.

This data was collected based on responses to a Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-8) used by healthcare professionals nationwide. The questionnaire generates a score based on 8 questions, with patients reflecting on their experiences over the last two weeks. It asks things like how often you’ve had trouble concentrating, had issues with your sleep, had trouble concentrating and focussing on things, and whether you’ve experienced feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and/or failure in that time. Each question has four response options with a score against each:

  • Not at all (0)

  • Several days (1)

  • More than half the days (2)

  • Almost every day (3)

Some form of depression is indicated for patients with a score of 10 or above. Using this scoring method helps people and their healthcare providers to differentiate between what might be temporary responses to life’s day-to-day challenges, and when symptoms of depression might be eased with clinical intervention.

How is depression treated in the UK?

The NHS outlines a range of treatment options that can be tried to help alleviate the symptoms of depression. Non-medical options for people considered to be experiencing mild depressive symptoms include guided self-help and talking therapies. These tend to focus on learning cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques and practicing applying them to potentially stressful situations that can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety. Counselling is another form of talking therapy that can help some people to process their thoughts and feelings, and support in finding solutions to issues faced. Exercise is another self-care technique that’s been found to help reduce the effects of depression and boost mood.

For moderate to severe symptoms of depression, treatments suggested may include antidepressants. There are different types of antidepressants, and they all require a prescription from a qualified healthcare professional. Common antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and noradrenaline and specific serotonergic antidepressants (NASSAs). As with all medicines, each individual antidepressant will have its own side effects and suitability based on a range of factors. It’s important to have a full consultation with your doctor or prescribing clinician before starting any course of antidepressant medication. Equally, if you’re considering stopping your antidepressant medication, a full review with your doctor is required to determine a safe reduction plan with the right post-treatment support in place.

Combination therapy is another option for severe depression symptoms, which combines an antidepressant prescription medication with talking therapy, such as counselling or CBT.

Brain stimulation is a depression treatment that incorporates a variety of techniques, ranging from invasive (such as electroconvulsive therapy, also referred to as ECT) to completely non-invasive methods like tDCS.

What is tDCS?

tDCS stands for transcranial direct current stimulation. This is a type of brain stimulation that uses a very low current of electricity to encourage the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) to fire, kickstarting healthy activity in the area of the brain that helps to regulate our mood. This has been found over time to reduce symptoms of depression and support patients to boost their mood.

Flow Neuroscience utilises this technique in the form of its headset device. It’s designed for use in the comfort and privacy of your own home, and offers flexibility to fit in with your lifestyle and daily routine. It’s designed for use in conjunction with the Flow behavioural therapy app, offering a holistic approach to treatment.

How Flow is helping people living with depression

So far, over 20,000 adults have chosen to try Flow as an at-home, pain-free treatment to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. A clinical trial of 172 patients in the UK and USA demonstrated Flow’s safety and suitability for use, further supporting evidence of 32 clinical trials observing the impact of tDCS as a treatment for depression.

In an overall assessment of evidence by the National Institute for Clinical Evidence (NICE), Flow was described as demonstrating, “high-quality, comparative evidence from the UK that [it] can improve symptoms of depression and lead to remission. This evidence is from people using the technology at home.”

Although NICE has assessed the published evidence, Flow is currently not part of the NICE guidance for the treatment of depression.

You can read more about these studies in Flow’s results and reviews.

Watch first-hand how Flow made a difference to Annie’s life in Flow’s video case study.

How you can try Flow today

The Flow Neuroscience team has a long-term vision of making effective and convenient mental health treatment more accessible. Part of this vision is being realised through an initial partnership with the NHS provider, Northamptonshire Health Foundations Trust. Flow has been available to patients in this region through four pilot schemes since March 2023.

Flow recognises this is just the start of what it anticipates to be a much wider rollout across the UK, as more NHS trusts look to adopt the treatment as an option for their own patients.

The Flow tDCS headset is also available to purchase for at-home use in conjunction with its behavioural therapy app, which offers practical guidance and support to provide a holistic approach to recovery. The app provides detailed instructions for use through the activation phase (first 3 weeks) and strengthening phase (following 7 weeks). Depending on your experience during the first 10 weeks, a further treatment plan of either 6 or 12 months will be indicated. You can find answers to frequently asked questions about the headset on the Flow Neuroscience homepage.

If you have a change of mind and decide the headset isn't for you, Flow offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. The device also comes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty for extra peace of mind.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, we’d always recommend speaking to your GP or healthcare provider for advice and support. If you’re considering the Flow headset and want to chat to your doctor about it, Flow has put together this leaflet with information for healthcare professionals to take with you.

View Flow in our Pharmacy Shop