tDCS modulates effective connectivity during motor command following; a potential therapeutic target for disorders of consciousness

Davide Aloi, Roya Jalali, Penelope Tilsley, R Chris Miall, Davinia Fernández-Espejo

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Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is attracting increasing interest as a potential therapeutic route for unresponsive patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness (PDOC). However, research to date has had mixed results. Here, we propose a new direction by directly addressing the mechanisms underlying lack of responsiveness in PDOC, and using these to define our targets and the success of our intervention in the healthy brain first. We report 2 experiments that assess whether tDCS to the primary motor cortex (M1-tDCS; Experiment 1) and the cerebellum (cb-tDCS; Experiment 2) administered at rest modulate thalamo-cortical coupling in a subsequent command following task typically used to clinically assess awareness. Both experiments use sham- and polarity-controlled, randomised, double-blind, crossover designs. In Experiment 1, 22 participants received anodal, cathodal, and sham M1-tDCS sessions while in the MRI scanner. A further 22 participants received the same protocol with cb-tDCS in Experiment 2. We used Dynamic Causal Modelling of fMRI to characterise the effects of tDCS on brain activity and dynamics during simple thumb movements in response to command. We found that M1-tDCS increased thalamic excitation and that Cathodal cb-tDCS increased excitatory coupling from thalamus to M1. All these changes were polarity specific. Combined, our experiments demonstrate that tDCS can successfully modulate long range thalamo-cortical dynamics during command following via targeting of cortical regions. This suggests that M1- and cb-tDCS may allow PDOC patients to overcome the motor deficits at the root of their reduced responsiveness, improving their rehabilitation options and quality of life as a result.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118781
Early online date5 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2022


  • PDOC
  • connectivity, motor network
  • consciousness
  • fMRI
  • tDCS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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