Brain stimulation boosts perceptual learning by altering sensory GABAergic plasticity and functional connectivity
Karlaftis VM., Frangou P., Higgins C., Vidaurre D., Ziminski JJ., Stagg CJ., Emir UE., Kourtzi Z.
AbstractInterpreting cluttered scenes —a key skill for successfully interacting with our environment— relies on our ability to select relevant sensory signals while filtering out noise. Training is known to improve our ability to make these perceptual judgements by altering local processing in sensory brain areas. Yet, the brain-wide network mechanisms that mediate our ability for perceptual learning remain largely unknown. Here, we combine transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) with multi-modal brain measures to modulate cortical excitability during training on a signal-in-noise task (i.e. detection of visual patterns in noise) and test directly the link between processing in visual cortex and its interactions with decision-related areas (i.e. posterior parietal cortex). We test whether brain stimulation alters inhibitory processing in visual cortex, as measured by magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) of GABA and functional connectivity between visual and posterior parietal cortex, as measured by resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI). We show that anodal tDCS during training results in faster learning and decreased GABA+ during training, before these changes occur for training without stimulation (i.e. sham). Further, anodal tDCS decreases occipito-parietal interactions and time-varying connectivity across the visual cortex. Our findings demonstrate that tDCS boosts learning by accelerating visual GABAergic plasticity and altering interactions between visual and decision-related areas, suggesting that training optimises gain control mechanisms (i.e. GABAergic inhibition) and functional inter-areal interactions to support perceptual learning.