Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Sensory perception can be modulated by the phase of neural oscillations, especially in the theta and alpha ranges. Oscillatory activity in the visual cortex can be entrained by transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) as well as periodic visual stimulation (i.e., flicker). Combined tACS and visual flicker stimulation modulates BOLD response, and concurrent 4-Hz auditory click train, and tACS modulate auditory perception in a phase-dependent way. In this study, we investigated whether phase synchrony between concurrent tACS and periodic visual stimulation (i.e., flicker) can modulate performance on a visual matching task. Participants completed a visual matching task on a flickering visual stimulus while receiving either in-phase (0°) or asynchronous (180°, 90°, or 270°) tACS at alpha or theta frequency. Stimulation was applied over either occipital cortex or dorsolateral pFC. Visual performance was significantly better during theta frequency tACS over the visual cortex when it was in-phase (0°) with visual stimulus flicker, compared with antiphase (180°). This effect did not appear with alpha frequency flicker or with dorsolateral pFC stimulation. Furthermore, a control sham group showed no effect. There were no significant performance differences among the asynchronous (180°, 90°, and 270°) phase conditions. Extending previous studies on visual and auditory perception, our results support a crucial role of oscillatory phase in sensory perception and demonstrate a behaviorally relevant combination of visual flicker and tACS. The spatial and frequency specificity of our results have implications for research on the functional organization of perception.