Quantitative Review Finds No Evidence of Cognitive Effects in Healthy Populations From Single-session Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)

Brain Stimul. May-Jun 2015;8(3):535-50. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2015.01.400. Epub 2015 Jan 16.


Background: Over the last 15-years, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a relatively novel form of neuromodulation, has seen a surge of popularity in both clinical and academic settings. Despite numerous claims suggesting that a single session of tDCS can modulate cognition in healthy adult populations (especially working memory and language production), the paradigms utilized and results reported in the literature are extremely variable. To address this, we conduct the largest quantitative review of the cognitive data to date.

Methods: Single-session tDCS data in healthy adults (18-50) from every cognitive outcome measure reported by at least two different research groups in the literature was collected. Outcome measures were divided into 4 broad categories: executive function, language, memory, and miscellaneous. To account for the paradigmatic variability in the literature, we undertook a three-tier analysis system; each with less-stringent inclusion criteria than the prior. Standard mean difference values with 95% CIs were generated for included studies and pooled for each analysis.

Results: Of the 59 analyses conducted, tDCS was found to not have a significant effect on any - regardless of inclusion laxity. This includes no effect on any working memory outcome or language production task.

Conclusion: Our quantitative review does not support the idea that tDCS generates a reliable effect on cognition in healthy adults. Reasons for and limitations of this finding are discussed. This work raises important questions regarding the efficacy of tDCS, state-dependency effects, and future directions for this tool in cognitive research.

Keywords: Executive function; Language; Memory; Quantitative review; Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS); Working memory.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation*