Polarity and timing-dependent effects of transcranial direct current stimulation in explicit motor learning.
Stagg CJ., Jayaram G., Pastor D., Kincses ZT., Matthews PM., Johansen-Berg H.
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is attracting increasing interest as a therapeutic tool for neurorehabilitation, particularly after stroke, because of its potential to modulate local excitability and therefore promote functional plasticity. Previous studies suggest that timing is important in determining the behavioural effects of brain stimulation. Regulatory metaplastic mechanisms exist to modulate the effects of a stimulation intervention in a manner dependent on prior cortical excitability, thereby preventing destabilization of existing cortical networks. The importance of such timing dependence has not yet been fully explored for tDCS. Here, we describe the results of a series of behavioural experiments in healthy controls to determine the importance of the relative timing of tDCS for motor performance. Application of tDCS during an explicit sequence-learning task led to modulation of behaviour in a polarity specific manner: relative to sham stimulation, anodal tDCS was associated with faster learning and cathodal tDCS with slower learning. Application of tDCS prior to performance of the sequence-learning task led to slower learning after both anodal and cathodal tDCS. By contrast, regardless of the polarity of stimulation, tDCS had no significant effect on performance of a simple reaction time task. These results are consistent with the idea that anodal tDCS interacts with subsequent motor learning in a metaplastic manner and suggest that anodal stimulation modulates cortical excitability in a manner similar to motor learning.