Implantable direct current neural modulation: Theory, feasibility, and efficacy

Felix P. Aplin, Gene Y. Fridman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Implantable neuroprostheses such as cochlear implants, deep brain stimulators, spinal cord stimulators, and retinal implants use charge-balanced alternating current (AC) pulses to recover delivered charge and thus mitigate toxicity from electrochemical reactions occurring at the metal-tissue interface. At low pulse rates, these short duration pulses have the effect of evoking spikes in neural tissue in a phase-locked fashion. When the therapeutic goal is to suppress neural activity, implants typically work indirectly by delivering excitation to populations of neurons that then inhibit the target neurons, or by delivering very high pulse rates that suffer from a number of undesirable side effects. Direct current (DC) neural modulation is an alternative methodology that can directly modulate extracellular membrane potential. This neuromodulation paradigm can excite or inhibit neurons in a graded fashion while maintaining their stochastic firing patterns. DC can also sensitize or desensitize neurons to input. When applied to a population of neurons, DC can modulate synaptic connectivity. Because DC delivered to metal electrodes inherently violates safe charge injection criteria, its use has not been explored for practical applicability of DC-based neural implants. Recently, several new technologies and strategies have been proposed that address this safety criteria and deliver ionic-based direct current (iDC). This, along with the increased understanding of the mechanisms behind the transcutaneous DC-based modulation of neural targets, has caused a resurgence of interest in the interaction between iDC and neural tissue both in the central and the peripheral nervous system. In this review we assess the feasibility of in-vivo iDC delivery as a form of neural modulation. We present the current understanding of DC/neural interaction. We explore the different design methodologies and technologies that attempt to safely deliver iDC to neural tissue and assess the scope of application for direct current modulation as a form of neuroprosthetic treatment in disease. Finally, we examine the safety implications of long duration iDC delivery. We conclude that DC-based neural implants are a promising new modulation technology that could benefit from further chronic safety assessments and a better understanding of the basic biological and biophysical mechanisms that underpin DC-mediated neural modulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number379
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberAPR
StatePublished - 2019


  • Direct current
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Neural block
  • Neural implant
  • Neural interface
  • Neuromodulation
  • Synaptic remodeling
  • TDCS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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