Stimulating thought: a functional MRI study of transcranial direct current stimulation in schizophrenia

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Individuals with schizophrenia typically suffer a range of cognitive deficits, including prominent deficits in working memory and executive function. These difficulties are strongly predictive of functional outcomes, but there is a paucity of effective therapeutic interventions targeting these deficits. Transcranial direct current stimulation is a novel neuromodulatory technique with emerging evidence of potential pro-cognitive effects; however, there is limited understanding of its mechanism. This was a double-blind randomized sham controlled pilot study of transcranial direct current stimulation on a working memory (n-back) and executive function (Stroop) task in 28 individuals with schizophrenia using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Study participants received 30 min of real or sham transcranial direct current stimulation applied to the left frontal cortex. The ‘real’ and ‘sham’ groups did not differ in online working memory task performance, but the transcranial direct current stimulation group demonstrated significant improvement in performance at 24 h post-transcranial direct current stimulation. Transcranial direct current stimulation was associated with increased activation in the medial frontal cortex beneath the anode; showing a positive correlation with consolidated working memory performance 24 h post-stimulation. There was reduced activation in the left cerebellum in the transcranial direct current stimulation group, with no change in the middle frontal gyrus or parietal cortices. Improved performance on the executive function task was associated with reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. Transcranial direct current stimulation modulated functional activation in local task-related regions, and in more distal nodes in the network. Transcranial direct current stimulation offers a potential novel approach to altering frontal cortical activity and exerting pro-cognitive effects in schizophrenia.

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