Sham-controlled randomized multicentre trial of transcranial direct current stimulation for prolonged disorders of consciousness

Eur J Neurol. 2023 Oct;30(10):3016-3031. doi: 10.1111/ene.15974. Epub 2023 Jul 28.


Background and purpose: Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has been shown to improve signs of consciousness in a subset of patients with disorders of consciousness (DoC). However, no multicentre study confirmed its efficacy when applied during rehabilitation. In this randomized controlled double-blind study, the effects of tDCS whilst patients were in rehabilitation were tested at the group level and according to their diagnosis and aetiology to better target DoC patients who might repond to tDCS.

Methods: Patients received 2 mA tDCS or sham applied over the left prefrontal cortex for 4 weeks. Behavioural assessments were performed weekly and up to 3 months' follow-up. Analyses were conducted at the group and subgroup levels based on the diagnosis (minimally conscious state [MCS] and unresponsive wakefulness syndrome) and the aetiology (traumatic or non-traumatic). Interim analyses were planned to continue or stop the trial.

Results: The trial was stopped for futility when 62 patients from 10 centres were enrolled (44 ± 14 years, 37 ± 24.5 weeks post-injury, 18 women, 32 MCS, 39 non-traumatic). Whilst, at the group level, no treatment effect was found, the subgroup analyses at 3 months' follow-up revealed a significant improvement for patients in MCS and with traumatic aetiology.

Conclusions: Transcranial direct current stimulation during rehabilitation does not seem to enhance patients' recovery. However, diagnosis and aetiology appear to be important factors leading to a response to the treatment. These findings bring novel insights into possible cortical plasticity changes in DoC patients given these differential results according to the subgroups of patients.

Keywords: anoxia; coma; disorders of consciousness; minimally conscious sate; rehabilitation; stroke; transcranial direct current stimulation; traumatic brain injury; vegetative state.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Consciousness Disorders / diagnosis
  • Consciousness Disorders / therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Persistent Vegetative State / diagnosis
  • Persistent Vegetative State / therapy
  • Prefrontal Cortex
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation* / methods
  • Treatment Outcome