April 2017, Vol. 29, No. 4, Pages 755-768
Boosting Cognition: Effects of Multiple-Session Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation on Working Memory
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a promising tool for neurocognitive enhancement. Several studies have shown that just a single session of tDCS over the left dorsolateral pFC (lDLPFC) can improve the core cognitive function of working memory (WM) in healthy adults. Yet, recent studies combining multiple sessions of anodal tDCS over lDLPFC with verbal WM training did not observe additional benefits of tDCS in subsequent stimulation sessions nor transfer of benefits to novel WM tasks posttraining. Using an enhanced stimulation protocol as well as a design that included a baseline measure each day, the current study aimed to further investigate the effects of multiple sessions of tDCS on WM. Specifically, we investigated the effects of three subsequent days of stimulation with anodal (20 min, 1 mA) versus sham tDCS (1 min, 1 mA) over lDLPFC (with a right supraorbital reference) paired with a challenging verbal WM task. WM performance was measured with a verbal WM updating task (the letter n-back) in the stimulation sessions and several WM transfer tasks (different letter set n-back, spatial n-back, operation span) before and 2 days after stimulation. Anodal tDCS over lDLPFC enhanced WM performance in the first stimulation session, an effect that remained visible 24 hr later. However, no further gains of anodal tDCS were observed in the second and third stimulation sessions, nor did benefits transfer to other WM tasks at the group level. Yet, interestingly, post hoc individual difference analyses revealed that in the anodal stimulation group the extent of change in WM performance on the first day of stimulation predicted pre to post changes on both the verbal and the spatial transfer task. Notably, this relationship was not observed in the sham group. Performance of two individuals worsened during anodal stimulation and on the transfer tasks. Together, these findings suggest that repeated anodal tDCS over lDLPFC combined with a challenging WM task may be an effective method to enhance domain-independent WM functioning in some individuals, but not others, or can even impair WM. They thus call for a thorough investigation into individual differences in tDCS respondence as well as further research into the design of multisession tDCS protocols that may be optimal for boosting cognition across a wide range of individuals.