Subcortical structures in humans can be facilitated by transcranial direct current stimulation

PLoS One. 2014 Sep 18;9(9):e107731. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0107731. eCollection 2014.


Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a noninvasive brain stimulation technique that alters cortical excitability. Interestingly, in recent animal studies facilitatory effects of tDCS have also been observed on subcortical structures. Here, we sought to provide evidence for the potential of tDCS to facilitate subcortical structures in humans as well. Subjects received anodal-tDCS and sham-tDCS on two separate testing days in a counterbalanced order. After stimulation, we assessed the effect of tDCS on two responses that arise from subcortical structures; (1) wrist and ankle responses to an imperative stimulus combined with a startling acoustic stimulus (SAS), and (2) automatic postural responses to external balance perturbations with and without a concurrent SAS. During all tasks, response onsets were significantly faster following anodal-tDCS compared to sham-tDCS, both in trials with and without a SAS. The effect of tDCS was similar for the dominant and non-dominant leg. The SAS accelerated the onsets of ankle and wrist movements and the responses to backward, but not forward perturbations. The faster onsets of SAS-induced wrist and ankle movements and automatic postural responses following stimulation provide strong evidence that, in humans, subcortical structures--in particular the reticular formation--can be facilitated by tDCS. This effect may be explained by two mechanisms that are not mutually exclusive. First, subcortical facilitation may have resulted from enhanced cortico-reticular drive. Second, the applied current may have directly stimulated the reticular formation. Strengthening reticulospinal output by tDCS may be of interest to neurorehabilitation, as there is evidence for reticulospinal compensation after corticospinal lesions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Posture / physiology
  • Reaction Time
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation / methods*
  • Wrist
  • Young Adult

Grant support

This research was funded by a Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre Research Grant to Jorik Nonnekes, and Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research Veni Research Grants to Vivian Weerdesteyn (916.10.106) and Edwin van Asseldonk (916.10.143). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.