Research Article: Enhancement of multitasking performance and neural oscillations by transcranial alternating current stimulation

Date Published: May 31, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Wan-Yu Hsu, Theodore P. Zanto, Martine R. van Schouwenburg, Adam Gazzaley, Andrea Antal.


Multitasking is associated with the generation of stimulus-locked theta (4–7 Hz) oscillations arising from prefrontal cortex (PFC). Transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that influences endogenous brain oscillations. Here, we investigate whether applying alternating current stimulation within the theta frequency band would affect multitasking performance, and explore tACS effects on neurophysiological measures. Brief runs of bilateral PFC theta-tACS were applied while participants were engaged in a multitasking paradigm accompanied by electroencephalography (EEG) data collection. Unlike an active control group, a tACS stimulation group showed enhancement of multitasking performance after a 90-minute session (F1,35 = 6.63, p = 0.01, ηp2 = 0.16; effect size = 0.96), coupled with significant modulation of posterior beta (13–30 Hz) activities (F1,32 = 7.66, p = 0.009, ηp2 = 0.19; effect size = 0.96). Across participant regression analyses indicated that those participants with greater increases in frontal theta, alpha and beta oscillations exhibited greater multitasking performance improvements. These results indicate frontal theta-tACS generates benefits on multitasking performance accompanied by widespread neuronal oscillatory changes, and suggests that future tACS studies with extended treatments are worth exploring as promising tools for cognitive enhancement.

Partial Text

Engaging in two or more cognitive processes simultaneously is a common demand in today’s saturated, information-rich environment. Although processing multiple streams of content at the same time is not beyond human ability, managing overlapping attention-demanding tasks diminishes performance [1]. Optimal neural processing engaged during high-level cognitive performance has been shown to rely on cortical oscillatory synchronization in different frequency bands [2, 3], such as theta (4–7 Hz) oscillations in working memory [4], retrospective monitoring [5], and focused attention [6]. Notably, prefrontal cortical theta oscillations have been associated with multitasking performance [7, 8]. Based on this finding and evidence that transcranial direct current electrical stimulation (tDCS) can exert beneficial effects on multitasking performance [9, 10], here, we investigate whether applying an alternating electrical stimulation at theta oscillations across the prefrontal cortex (PFC) would similarly improve performance metrics of multitasking.

All the participants tolerated the repeated runs of tACS well and no one reported any adverse effects.

We studied the effects of frontal theta electrical stimulation on multitasking performance, as well as changes in neurophysiological measures associated with tACS effects. The results showed that repeated runs of theta-tACS generates positive effects on multitasking performance accompanied by an offline increase in posterior beta power. Additionally, changes in frontal oscillations positively correlated with changes in multitasking performance. These results suggest that applying frontal theta stimulation increases power in multiple frequencies of brain oscillations related to improved multitasking performance.

The present results provide evidence that theta-tACS over bilateral PFC improves multitasking performance and modulates related neural oscillations. Our findings suggest that tACS may be a promising tool for cognitive enhancement, as well as raise the possibility of potential therapeutic applications for physiological aging and clinical populations afflicted with cognitive deficits (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) [62] as the effects outlast the duration of the stimulation. Studies with appropriate frequency and site control conditions will help to unequivocally demonstrate the specificity of stimulation effects. Further research is warranted to determine the impact of longer-term stimulation over the course of days, as well as sustainability of stimulation effects and potential transfer of benefits to other cognitive control abilities.