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Brain Stimul. 2012 Apr;5(2):155-62. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2011.02.007. Epub 2011 Mar 27.

Differences in the experience of active and sham transcranial direct current stimulation.

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Division of Neurology, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.



A limited number of studies have shown that modulation of cortical excitability using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is safe and tolerable. Few have directly evaluated whether sham and active stimulation are indistinguishable.


We aimed to demonstrate tDCS safety and tolerability in a large cohort, and to compare the occurrence and severity of side effects between sham and active stimulation sessions.


One hundred thirty-one healthy subjects undergoing 277 tDCS sessions rated on a 1 to 5 scale the perception of side effects during and after stimulation. Proportions of active and sham sessions associated with side effects were compared using Fisher exact test, and distributions of severity ratings were compared using the Kruskal-Wallis test.


No serious adverse effects occurred. Side effects most commonly reported were tingling (76%), itching (68%), burning (54%), and pain (25%). Side effect severity was mild, with fewer than 2% of responses indicating a severity > 3 on all questions except tingling (15%), itching (20%), burning (7%), pain (5%), and fatigue (3%) during stimulation. Rates of sensory side effects were statistically significantly higher in active stimulation sessions compared with sham sessions. No other stimulation parameters had a statistically significant impact on side effect occurrence.


TDCS is a safe well-tolerated technique with no evidence of risk for serious adverse effects. Sensory side effects are common, but the severity is typically low. Because sensory side effects are more frequent and more severe in active compared with sham tDCS, the current method of sham stimulation may not be an adequate control condition for some studies.

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