Transcranial direct current stimulation over the left prefrontal cortex increases randomness of choice in instrumental learning

Zsolt Turi, Matthias Mittner, Alexander Opitz, Miriam Popkes, Walter Paulus, Andrea Antal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Introduction: There is growing evidence from neuro-computational studies that instrumental learning involves the dynamic interaction of a computationally rigid, low-level striatal and a more flexible, high-level prefrontal component. Methods: To evaluate the role of the prefrontal cortex in instrumental learning, we applied anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) optimized for the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, by using realistic MR-derived finite element model-based electric field simulations. In a study with a double-blind, sham-controlled, repeated-measures design, sixteen male participants performed a probabilistic learning task while receiving anodal and sham tDCS in a counterbalanced order. Results: Compared to sham tDCS, anodal tDCS significantly increased the amount of maladaptive shifting behavior after optimal outcomes during learning when reward probabilities were highly dissociable. Derived parameters of the Q-learning computational model further revealed a significantly increased model parameter that was sensitive to random action selection in the anodal compared to the sham tDCS session, whereas the learning rate parameter was not influenced significantly by tDCS. Conclusion: These results congruently indicate that prefrontal tDCS during instrumental learning increased randomness of choice, possibly reflecting the influence of the cognitive prefrontal component.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-154
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Feb 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by the, DFG ( PA 419/15-1 ) awarded to WP. MM was supported by a NWO Vidi grant awarded to Birte Forstmann. We thank Thomas Petrik for his help in adopting the task instructions to German and Titas Sengupta for her help in collecting participants and for the intriguing discussions on this topic. The authors wish to thank Christine Crozier who assisted in the proof-reading of the manuscript. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their careful reading and their insightful suggestions.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Elsevier Ltd.


  • Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
  • Exploitation
  • Exploration
  • Probabilistic learning task
  • Transcranial direct current stimulation
  • Working memory


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