Electrifying the motor engram: effects of tDCS on motor learning and control

Jean Jacques Orban de Xivry, Reza Shadmehr

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Learning to control our movements is accompanied by neuroplasticity of motor areas of the brain. The mechanisms of neuroplasticity are diverse and produce what is referred to as the motor engram, i.e., the neural trace of the motor memory. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) alters the neural and behavioral correlates of motor learning, but its precise influence on the motor engram is unknown. In this review, we summarize the effects of tDCS on neural activity and suggest a few key principles: (1) Firing rates are increased by anodal polarization and decreased by cathodal polarization, (2) anodal polarization strengthens newly formed associations, and (3) polarization modulates the memory of new/preferred firing patterns. With these principles in mind, we review the effects of tDCS on motor control, motor learning, and clinical applications. The increased spontaneous and evoked firing rates may account for the modulation of dexterity in non-learning tasks by tDCS. The facilitation of new association may account for the effect of tDCS on learning in sequence tasks while the ability of tDCS to strengthen memories of new firing patterns may underlie the effect of tDCS on consolidation of skills. We then describe the mechanisms of neuroplasticity of motor cortical areas and how they might be influenced by tDCS. We end with current challenges for the fields of brain stimulation and motor learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3379-3395
Number of pages17
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Oct 16 2014


  • Motor control
  • Motor cortex
  • Motor learning
  • tDCS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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