No evidential value in samples of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) studies of cognition and working memory in healthy populations

Cortex. 2017 Sep;94:131-141. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2017.06.021. Epub 2017 Jul 13.


A substantial number of studies have been published over the last decade, claiming that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can influence performance on cognitive tasks. However, there is some skepticism regarding the efficacy of tDCS, and evidence from meta-analyses are mixed. One major weakness of these meta-analyses is that they only examine outcomes in published studies. Given biases towards publishing positive results in the scientific literature, there may be a substantial "file-drawer" of unpublished negative results in the tDCS literature. Furthermore, multiple researcher degrees of freedom can also inflate published p-values. Recently, Simonsohn, Nelson and Simmons (2014) created a novel meta-analytic tool that examines the distribution of significant p-values in a literature, and compares it to expected distributions with different effect sizes. Using this tool, one can assess whether the selected studies have evidential value. Therefore, we examined a random selection of studies that used tDCS to alter performance on cognitive tasks, and tDCS studies on working memory in a recently published meta-analysis (Mancuso et al., 2016). Using a p-curve analysis, we found no evidence that the tDCS studies had evidential value (33% power or greater), with the estimate of statistical power of these studies being approximately 14% for the cognitive studies, and 5% (what would be expected from randomly generated data) for the working memory studies. It is likely that previous tDCS studies are substantially underpowered, and we provide suggestions for future research to increase the evidential value of future tDCS studies.

Keywords: Brain stimulation; Evidential value; Meta-analysis; P-curve; Transcranial direct current stimulation.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation*