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Cognitive effects and autonomic responses to transcranial pulsed current stimulation


Transcranial pulsed current stimulation (tPCS) is emerging as an option in the field of neuromodulation; however, little is known about its effects on cognition and behavior and its neurophysiological correlates as indexed by autonomic responses. Our aim was to identify the effects of tPCS on arithmetic processing and risk-taking behavior, and to further categorize physiological autonomic responses by heart rate variability (HRV) and electrodermal activity measurements before, during, and after exposure to task performance and stimulation. Thirty healthy volunteers were randomized to receive a single session of sham or active stimulation with a current intensity of 2 mA and a random frequency between 1 and 5 Hz. Our results showed that tPCS has a modest and specific effect on cognitive performance as indexed by the cognitive tasks chosen in this study. There was a modest effect of active tPCS only on performance facilitation on a complex-level mathematical task as compared to sham stimulation. On autonomic responses, we observed that HRV total power increased while LF/HF ratio decreased in the tPCS active group compared to sham. There were no group differences for adverse effects. Based on our results, we conclude that tPCS, in healthy subjects, has a modest and specific cognitive effect as shown by the facilitation of arithmetical processing on complex mathematical task. These effects are accompanied by modulation of the central autonomic network providing sympathetic–vagal balance during stressful conditions. Although behavioral results were modest, they contribute to the understanding of tPCS effects and cognitive enhancement.

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This research was supported in part by a grant from BrainGear Inc. LMQ appreciates the mentoring support offered by Dr. Lee Hadlington and Dr. Mark Scase from De Montfort University.

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Correspondence to Felipe Fregni.

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Leon Morales-Quezada and Camila Cosmo are the equally contributing first authors.

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Morales-Quezada, L., Cosmo, C., Carvalho, S. et al. Cognitive effects and autonomic responses to transcranial pulsed current stimulation. Exp Brain Res 233, 701–709 (2015).

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  • tPCS
  • Math task
  • HRV
  • Autonomic response
  • Cognition