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Phasic modulation of human somatosensory perception by transcranially applied oscillating currents

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Gundlach,  Christopher
Department Neurology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Institute of Psychology, University of Leipzig, Germany;

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Nierhaus,  Till
Department Neurology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Berlin (CCNB), FU Berlin, Germany;

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Villringer,  Arno
Department Neurology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt University Berlin, Germany;
Department of Neurology, Charité University Medicine Berlin, Germany;
Clinic for Cognitive Neurology, University of Leipzig, Germany;

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Sehm,  Bernhard
Department Neurology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Clinic for Cognitive Neurology, University of Leipzig, Germany;

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Citation

Gundlach, C., Müller, M. M., Nierhaus, T., Villringer, A., & Sehm, B. (2016). Phasic modulation of human somatosensory perception by transcranially applied oscillating currents. Brain Stimulation, 9(5), 712-719. doi:10.1016/j.brs.2016.04.014.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002B-5E7A-3
Abstract
Background Why are weak sensory stimuli sometimes perceived and other times not? Experimental paradigms using near-threshold stimuli suggest that spontaneous brain network dynamics are involved in separating relevant from irrelevant information. Recent findings in human visual perception provide evidence that the immediate spontaneous brain state, i.e. the phase of alpha oscillations, predicts whether a coinciding stimulus is further processed or not. Objectives Here, we investigated whether this concept of a “pulsed inhibition” involved in sensory gating represents a general mechanism of conscious human perception and can be modulated with non-invasive brain stimulation. Methods Hence, we used transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) at the individualized mu-alpha frequency to entrain somatosensory mu-alpha oscillations, and investigated the effect on somatosensory detection in healthy humans. tACS (or sham, respectively) was applied over primary somatosensory cortices (mu-tACS) while participants performed a detection task of somatosensory near-threshold stimuli. Results We found that mean perception thresholds during mu-tACS did not change as compared to sham stimulation. However, during mu-tACS, somatosensory detection thresholds varied as a function of the applied tACS phase. This effect was not found when tACS was applied over occipital areas at participant's individual visual alpha frequency. Conclusion Our data indicate that tACS applied at an endogenous frequency is capable of modulating human somatosensory perception by inducing phase-dependent periods of excitation and inhibition, i.e. entraining ongoing mu-alpha oscillations. These findings support the idea that the “pulsed inhibition” framework for sensory gating applies to somatosensory mu-alpha oscillations and might therefore represent a general, but sensory-specific mechanism of conscious human perception.