Evidence that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) generates little-to-no reliable neurophysiologic effect beyond MEP amplitude modulation in healthy human subjects: A systematic review

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Abstract

Background:

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a form of neuromodulation that is increasingly being utilized to examine and modify a number of cognitive and behavioral measures. The theoretical mechanisms by which tDCS generates these changes are predicated upon a rather large neurophysiological literature. However, a robust systematic review of this neurophysiological data has not yet been undertaken.

Methods:

tDCS data in healthy adults (18–50) from every neurophysiological outcome measure reported by at least two different research groups in the literature was collected. When possible, data was pooled and quantitatively analyzed to assess significance. When pooling was not possible, data was qualitatively compared to assess reliability.

Results:

Of the 30 neurophysiological outcome measures reported by at least two different research groups, tDCS was found to have a reliable effect on only one: MEP amplitude. Interestingly, the magnitude of this effect has been significantly decreasing over the last 14 years.

Conclusion:

Our systematic review does not support the idea that tDCS has a reliable neurophysiological effect beyond MEP amplitude modulation – though important limitations of this review (and conclusion) are discussed. This work raises questions concerning the mechanistic foundations and general efficacy of this device – the implications of which extend to the steadily increasing tDCS psychological literature.

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