Consequences of Cathodal Stimulation for Behavior: When Does It Help and When Does It Hurt Performance?

Cathodal Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (C-tDCS) has been reported, across different studies, to facilitate or hinder performance, or simply to have no tangible effect on behavior. This discrepancy is most prominent when C-tDCS is used to alter a cognitive function, questioning the assumption that cathodal stimulation always compromises performance. In this study, we aimed to study the effect of two variables on performance in a simple cognitive task (letter Flanker), when C-tDCS was applied to the left prefrontal cortex (PFC): (1) the time of testing relative to stimulation (during or after), and (2) the nature of the cognitive activity during stimulation in case of post-tDCS testing. In three experiments, we had participants either perform the Flanker task during C-tDCS (Experiment 1), or after C-tDCS. When the Flanker task was administered after C-tDCS, we varied whether during stimulation subjects were engaged in activities that posed low (Experiment 2) or high (Experiment 3) demands on the PFC. Our findings show that the nature of the task during C-tDCS has a systematic influence on the outcome, while timing per se does not.