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Evidence-Based Physiatry

The Use of Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, Specifically Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation After Stroke

Pruski, April MD; Celnik, Pablo MD

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American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation: August 2019 - Volume 98 - Issue 8 - p 735-736
doi: 10.1097/PHM.0000000000001209
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Motor impairment is a leading cause of disability after stroke. Approaches such as noninvasive brain stimulation are being investigated to attempt to increase effectiveness of stroke rehabilitation interventions. There are several types of noninvasive brain stimulation: repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), transcranial alternative current stimulation, and transcranial pulsed ultrasound to name a few. Of the types of noninvasive brain stimulation, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation and tDCS have been most extensively tested to modulate brain activity and potentially behavior. These two techniques have distinctive modes of action. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation directly stimulates neurons in the brain and, given the appropriate conditions, leads to new action potentials. On the other hand, tDCS polarizes neuronal tissue including neurons and glia modulating ongoing firing patterns. There are also differences in cost, utility, and knowledge skill required to apply tDCS and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. Transcranial direct stimulation is relatively inexpensive, easy to administer, portable, and may be applied while undergoing therapy, with lasting excitability changes detectable up to 90 minutes after administration. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation equipment is bulkier, expensive, technically more challenging, and a patient's head must remain still when treatment is being applied therefore needs to be administered before or after a session of rehabilitation. Because of these differences, tDCS has been more accessible and has rapidly grew as a potential tool to be used in neurorehabilitation to facilitate retraining of activities of daily living (ADL) capacity and possibly to improve restoration of neurological function after stroke.

There are three current stimulation approaches using tDCS to modulate corticomotor regions after stroke. In anodal stimulation mode, the anode electrode is placed over the lesioned brain area and a reference electrode is applied over the contralateral orbitofrontal cortex. Anodal tDCS is placed over the ipsilesional hemisphere to improve the responses of perilesional areas to training protocols. In cathodal stimulation, the cathode electrode is placed over the nonlesioned brain area and reference electrode over the contralateral (ipsilesional) orbitofrontal cortex. This approach has been predicated on the hypothesis that the nonstroke hemisphere will be inhibited by tDCS resulting in an increased activation of the ipsilesional hemisphere due to rebalancing of a presumably abnormal interhemispheric interaction. Although some studies have shown this approach to be beneficial, the causative role of interhemispheric interaction imbalance has been recently challenged and refuted.1 Thus, if cathodal stimulation approaches are beneficial, the behavioral effect cannot be explained by a presumed correction of abnormal interhemispheric connectivity. Finally, dual tDCS approach involves simultaneous application of the anode over the ipsilesional and the cathode over the contralesional side. Here again, the intended mechanism of action is to rebalance the presumably abnormal interhemispheric interaction.


What is the best tDCS type and electrical configuration? What are the effects of tDCS with rehabilitation program for upper limb recovery after stroke?


This short article discusses data obtained from a network meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and a recent meta-analysis. The network meta-analysis included 12 randomized controlled trials including 284 participants examining the effect of tDCS on ADL function in the acute, subacute, and chronic phases after stroke.2 The meta-analysis included 9 studies with 371 participants in any stage after stroke.3

The network meta-analysis found evidence of a significant moderate effect in favor of cathodal tDCS without significant effects of dual tDCS, anodal tDCS, or sham tDCS. There was no difference in safety (as assessed by dropouts and adverse events) between sham tDCS, physical rehabilitation, cathodal tDCS, dual tDCS, and anodal tDCS. Elsner in a previous review of tDCS in 2016 found an effect on improving ADL, as well as function of the arm and lower limb, muscle strength, and cognition. Thus, the findings from the most recent meta-analysis indicating cathodal that tDCS improves ADL capacity are in line with previous meta-analyses. Of note, there was no evidence of an effect of either cathodal or other tDCS stimulation approaches on upper paretic limb impairment after stroke as measured by the Fugl-Meyer scale.

A meta-analysis that included participants in any stage after the stroke showed that tDCS in conjunction with multiple sessions of rehabilitation had no significant effect over delivering therapy alone for upper limb impairment and activity after stroke. This negative finding might be due to patient's being in an acute, subacute, or chronic stage after stroke as well as variations in the type of therapy performed paired with tDCS (ie, conventional vs. constraint-induced movement therapy vs. robot protocol).


There seems to be a modest effect supporting the use of tDCS as a co-adjuvant of rehabilitation interventions to improve ADLs after stroke. Cathodal tDCS seems to be the most promising approach, especially when applied early after the stroke. However, the evidence remains preliminary and does not warrant a widespread change in clinical rehabilitation practice at this time.

There is no evidence supporting the use of tDCS to improve motor impairment (as measured by the FMS) at this point.

Importantly, tDCS remains as a very safe intervention, with no differences in safety when real vs. control tDCS is applied.


1. Xu J, Branscheidt M, Schambra H, et al.: Rethinking interhemispheric imbalance as a target for stroke neurorehabilitation. Ann Neurol 2019;85:502–13
2. Elsner B, Kwakkel G, Kugler J, et al.: Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) for improving capacity in activities and arm function after stroke: a network meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. J Neuroeng Rehabil 2017;14:95
3. Tedesco Triccas L, Burridge J, Hughes A, et al.: Multiple sessions of transcranial direct current stimulation and upper extremity rehabilitation in stroke: a review and meta-analysis. Clin Neurophysiol 2016;127:946–55
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