Inferring Causality from Noninvasive Brain Stimulation in Cognitive Neuroscience

J Cogn Neurosci. 2021 Feb;33(2):195-225. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01591. Epub 2020 Jun 12.


Noninvasive brain stimulation (NIBS) techniques, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation or transcranial direct and alternating current stimulation, are advocated as measures to enable causal inference in cognitive neuroscience experiments. Transcending the limitations of purely correlative neuroimaging measures and experimental sensory stimulation, they allow to experimentally manipulate brain activity and study its consequences for perception, cognition, and eventually, behavior. Although this is true in principle, particular caution is advised when interpreting brain stimulation experiments in a causal manner. Research hypotheses are often oversimplified, disregarding the underlying (implicitly assumed) complex chain of causation, namely, that the stimulation technique has to generate an electric field in the brain tissue, which then evokes or modulates neuronal activity both locally in the target region and in connected remote sites of the network, which in consequence affects the cognitive function of interest and eventually results in a change of the behavioral measure. Importantly, every link in this causal chain of effects can be confounded by several factors that have to be experimentally eliminated or controlled to attribute the observed results to their assumed cause. This is complicated by the fact that many of the mediating and confounding variables are not directly observable and dose-response relationships are often nonlinear. We will walk the reader through the chain of causation for a generic cognitive neuroscience NIBS study, discuss possible confounds, and advise appropriate control conditions. If crucial assumptions are explicitly tested (where possible) and confounds are experimentally well controlled, NIBS can indeed reveal cause-effect relationships in cognitive neuroscience studies.