The time course of ineffective sham blinding during low-intensity (1mA) transcranial direct current stimulation

Greinacher, R., Buhôt, L., Möller, L. and Learmonth, G. (2019) The time course of ineffective sham blinding during low-intensity (1mA) transcranial direct current stimulation. European Journal of Neuroscience, 50(8), pp. 3380-3388. (doi: 10.1111/ejn.14497) (PMID:31228880) (PMCID:PMC6899874)

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Studies using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) typically compare an active protocol relative to a shorter sham (placebo) protocol. Both protocols are presumed to be perceptually identical on the scalp, and thus represent an effective method of delivering double‐blinded experimental designs. However, participants often show above‐chance accuracy when asked which condition involved active/sham retrospectively. We assessed the time course of sham‐blinding during active and sham tDCS. We predicted that participants would be aware that the current is switched on for longer in the active versus sham protocol. 32 adults were tested in a pre‐registered, double‐blinded, within‐subjects design. A forced‐choice reaction time task was undertaken before, during and after active (10min 1mA) and sham (20s 1mA) tDCS. The anode was placed over the left primary motor cortex (C3) to target the right hand, and the cathode on the right forehead. Two probe questions were asked every 30s: “Is the stimulation on? “and “How sure are you?”. Distinct periods of non‐overlapping confidence intervals were identified between conditions, totalling 5min (57.1% of the total difference in stimulation time). These began immediately after sham ramp‐down and lasted until the active protocol had ended. We therefore show a failure of placebo control during 1mA tDCS. These results highlight the need to develop more effective methods of sham‐blinding during transcranial electrical stimulation protocols, even when delivered at low‐intensity current strengths.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Learmonth, Dr Gemma and Möller, Lisa
Authors: Greinacher, R., Buhôt, L., Möller, L., and Learmonth, G.
College/School:College of Science and Engineering > School of Psychology
Journal Name:European Journal of Neuroscience
ISSN (Online):1460-9568
Published Online:22 June 2019
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2019 The Authors
First Published:First published in European Journal of Neuroscience 50(8): 3380-3388
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a Creative Commons License

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
3009110Brain Rhythms in Altered Vision after Stroke (BRAVAS)Gemma LearmonthWellcome Trust (WELLCOTR)209209/Z/17/ZPsychology