Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a promising therapy for major depression treatment, although little is known of its effects in ameliorating distinct symptoms of depression. Thus, it is important, not only to increase knowledge of its antidepressant mechanisms, but also to guide its potential use in clinical practice. Using data from a recent factorial, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial applying tDCS-alone and combined with sertraline to treat 120 depressed outpatients over 6 wk (Brunoni et al., 2013), we investigated the pattern of improvement in symptoms of depression from the Montgomery–Asberg depression scale (MADRS). First, we performed one multivariate analysis of variance with the score improvement of the 10 MADRS items as dependent variables. Significant (p < 0.05) results were further explored with follow-up analyses of variance. TDCS (alone and combined with sertraline) improved concentration difficulties and pessimistic and suicidal thoughts. The combined treatment also improved apparent and reported sadness, lassitude and inability to feel. Indeed, tDCS/sertraline significantly ameliorated all but the ‘vegetative’ depression symptoms (inner tension, sleep and appetite items). We further discuss whether bifrontal tDCS over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could be associated with improvement in cognitive (concentration) and affective (pessimistic/suicidal thoughts) processing, while the combined treatment might have a more widespread antidepressant effect by simultaneously acting on different depression pathways. We also identified patterns of antidepressant improvement for tDCS that might aid in tailoring specific interventions for different subtypes of depressed patients, e.g. particularly those with suicidal ideation.