Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Artificial grammar learning constitutes a well-established model for the acquisition of grammatical knowledge in a natural setting. Previous neuroimaging studies demonstrated that Broca's area (left BA 44/45) is similarly activated by natural syntactic processing and artificial grammar learning. The current study was conducted to investigate the causal relationship between Broca's area and learning of an artificial grammar by means of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Thirty-eight healthy subjects participated in a between-subject design, with either anodal tDCS (20 min, 1 mA) or sham stimulation, over Broca's area during the acquisition of an artificial grammar. Performance during the acquisition phase, presented as a working memory task, was comparable between groups. In the subsequent classification task, detecting syntactic violations, and specifically, those where no cues to superficial similarity were available, improved significantly after anodal tDCS, resulting in an overall better performance. A control experiment where 10 subjects received anodal tDCS over an area unrelated to artificial grammar learning further supported the specificity of these effects to Broca's area. We conclude that Broca's area is specifically involved in rule-based knowledge, and here, in an improved ability to detect syntactic violations. The results cannot be explained by better tDCS-induced working memory performance during the acquisition phase. This is the first study that demonstrates that tDCS may facilitate acquisition of grammatical knowledge, a finding of potential interest for rehabilitation of aphasia.