Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation method that is frequently used to study cortical excitability changes and their impact on cognitive functions in humans. While most stimulators are capable of operating in double-blind mode, the amount of discomfort experienced during tDCS may break blinding. Therefore, specifically designed sham stimulation protocols are being used. The “fade-in, short-stimulation, fade-out” (FSF) protocol has been used in hundreds of studies and is commonly believed to be indistinguishable from real stimulation applied at 1 mA for 20 min. We analysed subjective reports of 192 volunteers, who either received real tDCS (n = 96) or FSF tDCS (n = 96). Participants reported more discomfort for real tDCS and correctly guessed the condition above chance-level. These findings indicate that FSF does not ensure complete blinding and that better active sham protocols are needed.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The writing of this paper was supported by the Research Program, University Medical Center, University of Goettingen awarded to ZT. AT received support from Lundbeckfonden (R118-A11308) and Novo Nordisk Fonden by a synergy grant on Biophysically adjusted state-informed cortex stimulation (BASICS; NNF14OC0011413). This work was supported by the Northern Norway Regional Health Authority (grant no. PFP1237-15) for GC and MM.
- active sham tDCS
- transcranial direct current stimulation