Transcranial Electrical Stimulation: What We Know and Do Not Know About Mechanisms

Neuroscientist. 2017 Apr;23(2):109-123. doi: 10.1177/1073858416631966. Epub 2016 Jul 8.


In recent years, there has been remarkable progress in the understanding and practical use of transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) techniques. Nevertheless, to date, this experimental effort has not been accompanied by substantial reflections on the models and mechanisms that could explain the stimulation effects. Given these premises, the aim of this article is to provide an updated picture of what we know about the theoretical models of tES that have been proposed to date, contextualized in a more specific and unitary framework. We demonstrate that these models can explain the tES behavioral effects as distributed along a continuum from stimulation dependent to network activity dependent. In this framework, we also propose that stochastic resonance is a useful mechanism to explain the general online neuromodulation effects of tES. Moreover, we highlight the aspects that should be considered in future research. We emphasize that tES is not an "easy-to-use" technique; however, it may represent a very fruitful approach if applied within rigorous protocols, with deep knowledge of both the behavioral and cognitive aspects and the more recent advances in the application of stimulation.

Keywords: NIBS; cognition; models; neuroenhancement; neuromodulation; noninvasive brain stimulation; stochastic resonance; tACS; tDCS; tES; tRNS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation / instrumentation
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation / methods*