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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Bifrontal transcranial direct current stimulation slows reaction time in a working memory task

Lisa Marshall1*, Matthias Mölle1, Hartwig R Siebner2 and Jan Born1

Author Affiliations

1 University of Lübeck, Department of Neuroendocrinology H23a, Ratzeburger Allee 160, 23538 Lübeck, Germany

2 University of Kiel, Department of Neurology, Niemannsweg 147, 24105 Kiel, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2005, 6:23  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-6-23

Published: 8 April 2005



Weak transcortical direct current stimulation (tDCS) applied to the cortex can shift the membrane potential of superficial neurons thereby modulating cortical excitability and activity. Here we test the possibility of modifying ongoing activity associated with working memory by tDCS. The concept of working memory applies to a system that is capable of transiently storing and manipulating information, as an integral part of the human memory system. We applied anodal and cathodal transcranial direct current (tDCS) stimulation (260 μA) bilaterally at fronto-cortical electrode sites on the scalp over 15 min repeatedly (15 sec-on/15 sec-off) as well as sham-tDCS while subjects performed a modified Sternberg task.


Reaction time linearly increased with increasing set size. The slope of this increase was closely comparable for real and sham stimulation indicating that our real stimulation did not effect time required for memory scanning. However, reaction time was slowed during both anodal and cathodal stimulation as compared to placebo (p < 0.05) indicating that real stimulation hampered neuronal processing related to response selection and preparation.


Intermittent tDCS over lateral prefrontal cortex during a working memory task impairs central nervous processing related to response selection and preparation. We conclude that this decrease in performance by our protocol of intermittent stimulation results from an interference mainly with the temporal dynamics of cortical processing as indexed by event-related sustained and oscillatory EEG activity such as theta.