Cognitive Enhancement or Cognitive Cost: Trait-Specific Outcomes of Brain Stimulation in the Case of Mathematics Anxiety
Sarkar A., Dowker A., Cohen Kadosh R.
The surge in noninvasive brain stimulation studies investigating cognitive enhancement has neglected the effect of interindividual differences, such as traits, on stimulation outcomes. Using the case of mathematics anxiety in a sample of healthy human participants in a placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover experiment, we show that identical transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) exerts opposite behavioral and physiological effects depending on individual trait levels. Mathematics anxiety is the negative emotional response elicited by numerical tasks, impairing mathematical achievement. tDCS was applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a frequent target for modulating emotional regulation. It improved reaction times on simple arithmetic decisions and decreased cortisol concentrations (a biomarker of stress) in high mathematics anxiety individuals. In contrast, tDCS impaired reaction times for low mathematics anxiety individuals and prevented a decrease in cortisol concentration compared with sham stimulation. Both groups showed a tDCS-induced side effect—impaired executive control in a flanker task—a cognitive function subserved by the stimulated region. These behavioral and physiological double dissociations have implications for brain stimulation research by highlighting the role of individual traits in experimental findings. Brain stimulation clearly does not produce uniform benefits, even applied in the same configuration during the same tasks, but may interact with traits to produce markedly opposed outcomes.