Are Participants Aware of the Type and Intensity of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation?

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Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is commonly used to alter cortical excitability but no experimental study has yet determined whether human participants are able to distinguish between the different types (anodal, cathodal, and sham) of stimulation. If they can then they are not blind to experimental conditions. We determined whether participants could identify different types of stimulation (anodal, cathodal, and sham) and current strengths after experiencing the sensations of stimulation during current onset and offset(which are associated with the most intense sensations) in Experiment 1 and also with a prolonged period of stimulation in Experiment 2. We first familiarized participants with anodal, cathodal, and sham stimulation at both 1 and 2 mA over either primary motor or visual cortex while their sensitivity to small changes in visual stimuli was assessed. The different stimulation types were then applied for a short (Experiment 1) or extended (Experiment2) period with participants indicating the type and strength of the stimulation on the basis of the evoked sensations. Participants were able to identify the intensity of stimulation with shorter, but not longer periods, of stimulation at better than chance levels but identification of the different stimulation types was at chance levels. This result suggests that even after exposing participants to stimulation, and ensuring they are fully aware of the existence of a sham condition, they are unable to identify the type of stimulation from transient changes in stimulation intensity or from more prolonged stimulation. Thus participants are able to identify intensity of stimulation but not the type of stimulation.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0148825
Pages (from-to)1-13
JournalPLoS One
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2016


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