Microstructural and functional plasticity following repeated brain stimulation during cognitive training in older adults

Daria Antonenko, Anna Elisabeth Fromm, Friederike Thams, Ulrike Grittner, Marcus Meinzer & Agnes Flöel

The combination of repeated behavioral training with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) holds promise to exert beneficial effects on brain function beyond the trained task. However, little is known about the underlying mechanisms. We performed a monocenter, single-blind randomized, placebo-controlled trial comparing cognitive training to concurrent anodal tDCS (target intervention) with cognitive training to concurrent sham tDCS (control intervention), registered at ClinicalTrial.gov (Identifier NCT03838211). The primary outcome (performance in trained task) and secondary behavioral outcomes (performance on transfer tasks) were reported elsewhere. Here, underlying mechanisms were addressed by pre-specified analyses of multimodal magnetic resonance imaging before and after a three-week executive function training with prefrontal anodal tDCS in 48 older adults. Results demonstrate that training combined with active tDCS modulated prefrontal white matter microstructure which predicted individual transfer task performance gain. Training-plus-tDCS also resulted in microstructural grey matter alterations at the stimulation site, and increased prefrontal functional connectivity. We provide insight into the mechanisms underlying neuromodulatory interventions, suggesting tDCS-induced changes in fiber organization and myelin formation, glia-related and synaptic processes in the target region, and synchronization within targeted functional networks. These findings advance the mechanistic understanding of neural tDCS effects, thereby contributing to more targeted neural network modulation in future experimental and translation tDCS applications.

Nat Commun. 14, 3184 (2023)


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