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BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVE: Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has wide ranging applications in neuro-behavioural and physiological research, and in neurological rehabilitation. However, it is currently limited by substantial inter-subject variability in responses, which may be explained, at least in part, by anatomical differences that lead to variability in the electric field (E-field) induced in the cortex. Here, we tested whether the variability in the E-field in the stimulated cortex during anodal tDCS, estimated using computational simulations, explains the variability in tDCS induced changes in GABA, a neurophysiological marker of stimulation effect. METHODS: Data from five previously conducted MRS studies were combined. The anode was placed over the left primary motor cortex (M1, 3 studies, N = 24) or right temporal cortex (2 studies, N = 32), with the cathode over the contralateral supraorbital ridge. Single voxel spectroscopy was performed in a 2 × 2x2cm voxel under the anode in all cases. MRS data were acquired before and either during or after 1mA tDCS using either a sLASER sequence (7T) or a MEGA-PRESS sequence (3T). sLASER MRS data were analysed using LCModel, and MEGA-PRESS using FID-A and Gannet. E-fields were simulated in a finite element model of the head, based on individual MPRAGE images, using SimNIBS. Separate linear mixed effects models were run for each E-field variable (mean and 95th percentile; magnitude, and components normal and tangential to grey matter surface, within the MRS voxel). The model included effects of time (pre or post tDCS), E-field, grey matter volume in the MRS voxel, and a 3-way interaction between time, E-field and grey matter volume. Additionally, we ran a permutation analysis using PALM to determine whether E-field anywhere in the brain, not just in the MRS voxel, correlated with GABA change. RESULTS: In M1, higher mean E-field magnitude was associated with greater anodal tDCS-induced decreases in GABA (t(24) = 3.24, p = 0.003). Further, the association between mean E-field magnitude and GABA change was moderated by the grey matter volume in the MRS voxel (t(24) = -3.55, p = 0.002). These relationships were consistent across all E-field variables except the mean of the normal component. No significant relationship was found between tDCS-induced GABA decrease and E-field in the temporal voxel. No significant clusters were found in the whole brain analysis. CONCLUSIONS: Our data suggest that the electric field induced by tDCS within the brain is variable, and is significantly related to anodal tDCS-induced decrease in GABA, a key neurophysiological marker of stimulation. These findings strongly support individualised dosing of tDCS, at least in M1. Further studies examining E-fields in relation to other outcome measures, including behaviour, will help determine the optimal E-fields required for any desired effects.

Original publication




Journal article


Brain Stimul

Publication Date



GABA, Inter-individual variability, MRS, Modelling, electric field, tDCS