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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

December 2015, Vol. 27, No. 12, Pages 2382-2393
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00867)
© 2015 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Effects of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation over Left Dorsolateral pFC on the Attentional Blink Depend on Individual Baseline Performance
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Selection mechanisms that dynamically gate only relevant perceptual information for further processing and sustained representation in working memory are critical for goal-directed behavior. We examined whether this gating process can be modulated by anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) over left dorsolateral pFC (DLPFC)—a region known to play a key role in working memory and conscious access. Specifically, we examined the effects of tDCS on the magnitude of the so-called “attentional blink” (AB), a deficit in identifying the second of two targets presented in rapid succession. Thirty-four participants performed a standard AB task before (baseline), during, and after 20 min of 1-mA anodal and cathodal tDCS in two separate sessions. On the basis of previous reports linking individual differences in AB magnitude to individual differences in DLPFC activity and on suggestions that effects of tDCS depend on baseline brain activity levels, we hypothesized that anodal tDCS over left DLPFC would modulate the magnitude of the AB as a function of individual baseline AB magnitude. Indeed, individual differences analyses revealed that anodal tDCS decreased the AB in participants with a large baseline AB but increased the AB in participants with a small baseline AB. This effect was only observed during (but not after) stimulation, was not found for cathodal tDCS, and could not be explained by regression to the mean. Notably, the effects of tDCS were not apparent at the group level, highlighting the importance of taking individual variability in performance into account when evaluating the effectiveness of tDCS. These findings support the idea that left DLPFC plays a critical role in the AB and in conscious access more generally. They are also in line with the notion that there is an optimal level of prefrontal activity for cognitive function, with both too little and too much activity hurting performance.