Moderate effects of noninvasive brain stimulation of the frontal cortex for improving negative symptoms in schizophrenia: meta-analysis of controlled trials

Andre Aleman*, Stefanie Enriquez-Geppert, Henderikus Knegtering, Jozarni J. Dlabac-de Lange

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

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Background: Negative symptoms in schizophrenia concern a clinically relevant reduction of goal-directed behavior that strongly and negatively impacts daily functioning. Existing treatments are of marginal effect and novel approaches are needed. Noninvasive neurostimulation by means of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) are novel approaches that may hold promise.

Objectives: To provide a quantitative integration of the published evidence regarding effects of rTMS and tDCS over the frontal cortex on negative symptoms, including an analysis of effects of sham stimulation.

Methods: Meta-analysis was applied, using a random effects model, to calculate mean weighted effect sizes (Cohen's d). Heterogeneity was assessed by using Cochrans Q and I-2 tests.

Results: For rTMS treatment, the mean weighted effect size compared to sham stimulation was 0.64 (0.32-0.96; k = 22, total N = 827). Studies with younger participants showed stronger effects as compared to studies with older participants. For tDCS studies a mean weighted effect size of 0.50 (-0.07 to 1.07; k = 5, total N = 134) was found. For all frontal noninvasive neurostimulation studies together (i.e., TMS and tDCS studies combined) active stimulation was superior to sham, the mean weighted effect size was 0.61 (24 studies, 27 comparisons, 95% confidence interval 0.33-0.89; total N = 961). Sham rTMS (baseline-posttreatment comparison) showed a significant improvement of negative symptoms, d = 0.31 (0.09-0.52; k = 16, total N = 333). Whereas previous meta-analyses were underpowered, our meta-analysis had a power of 0.87 to detect a small effect.

Conclusions: The available evidence indicates that noninvasive prefrontal neurostimulation can improve negative symptoms. This finding suggests a causal role for the lateral frontal cortex in self-initiated goal-directed behavior. The evidence is stronger for rTMS than for tDCS, although this may be due to the small number of studies as yet with tDCS. More research is needed to establish moderator variables that may affect response to neurostimulation and to optimize treatment parameters in order to achieve stable and durable (and thus clinically relevant) effects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-118
Number of pages8
JournalNeuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews
Publication statusPublished - Jun-2018


  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation
  • Transcranial direct current stimulation
  • Frontal cortex
  • Negative symptoms
  • Schizophrenia
  • RTMS
  • TDCS

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