Placebo effects of transcranial direct current stimulation on motor skill acquisition

Neurosci Lett. 2023 Sep 25:814:137442. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2023.137442. Epub 2023 Aug 15.


Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique used in neurorehabilitation to enhance motor training. However, its benefits to motor training can be difficult to reproduce across research studies. It is possible that the observed benefits of tDCS are not directly related to the intervention itself but rather to the brain-mind responses elicited by the treatment context, commonly known as a placebo effect. This study investigated the presence of a placebo effect of tDCS on motor training and explored potential underlying factors. Sixty-eight participants who were right-handed were randomly assigned to active tDCS, sham tDCS, or a no-stimulation control group. Double-blind active or sham tDCS was applied to the right primary motor cortex, while the unblinded control group received no stimulation. All participants completed 30 training trials of a functional upper-extremity motor task. Participants' beliefs of tDCS, along with their prior knowledge of tDCS, were also collected. There was no significant difference in the amount of improvement on the motor task between the active and sham tDCS groups; however, both active and sham tDCS groups improved more than the control group, indicating a placebo effect. More motor task improvement was also associated with higher beliefs of tDCS (regardless of whether active or sham tDCS was received). This demonstrates a measurable placebo effect of tDCS on motor training, driven at least in part by treatment expectations or beliefs. Future tDCS studies should control for beliefs and other placebo-related factors.

Keywords: Motor acquisition; Motor learning; Placebo effect; Transcranial direct current stimulation; Upper-extremity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Humans
  • Motor Skills / physiology
  • Placebo Effect
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation* / methods
  • Upper Extremity