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Neuroscientist. 2010 Jun;16(3):285-307. doi: 10.1177/1073858409336227. Epub 2009 Dec 29.

Noninvasive brain stimulation with low-intensity electrical currents: putative mechanisms of action for direct and alternating current stimulation.

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  • 1Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02215, USA.


Transcranial stimulation with weak direct current (DC) has been valuable in exploring the effect of cortical modulation on various neural networks. Less attention has been given, however, to cranial stimulation with low-intensity alternating current (AC). Reviewing and discussing these methods simultaneously with special attention to what is known about their mechanisms of action may provide new insights for the field of noninvasive brain stimulation. Direct current appears to modulate spontaneous neuronal activity in a polarity-dependent fashion with site-specific effects that are perpetuated throughout the brain via networks of interneuronal circuits, inducing significant effects on high-order cortical processes implicated in decision making, language, memory, sensory perception, and pain. AC stimulation has also been associated with a significant behavioral and clinical impact, but the mechanism of AC stimulation has been underinvestigated in comparison with DC stimulation. Even so, preliminary studies show that although AC stimulation has only modest effects on cortical excitability, it has been shown to induce synchronous changes in brain activity as measured by EEG activity. Thus, cranial AC stimulation may render its effects not by polarizing brain tissue, but rather via rhythmic stimulation that synchronizes and enhances the efficacy of endogenous neurophysiologic activity. Alternatively, secondary nonspecific central and peripheral effects may explain the clinical outcomes of DC or AC stimulation. Here the authors review what is known about DC and AC stimulation, and they discuss features that remain to be investigated.

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