Review Article

Studying and modifying brain function with non-invasive brain stimulation

  • Nature Neurosciencevolume 21pages174187 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41593-017-0054-4
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In the past three decades, our understanding of brain–behavior relationships has been significantly shaped by research using non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS) techniques. These methods allow non-invasive and safe modulation of neural processes in the healthy brain, enabling researchers to directly study how experimentally altered neural activity causally affects behavior. This unique property of NIBS methods has, on the one hand, led to groundbreaking findings on the brain basis of various aspects of behavior and has raised interest in possible clinical and practical applications of these methods. On the other hand, it has also triggered increasingly critical debates about the properties and possible limitations of these methods. In this review, we discuss these issues, clarify the challenges associated with the use of currently available NIBS techniques for basic research and practical applications, and provide recommendations for studies using NIBS techniques to establish brain–behavior relationships.

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Michael A. Nitsche receives support by the EC Horizon 2020 Program, FET Grant, 686764-LUMINOUS, grants from the German ministry of Research and Education (GCBS grant 01EE1403C, TRAINSTIM grant 01GQ1424E), and by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - Germany (SFB 1280 Extinction Learning). Christian C. Ruff is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grants 105314_152891 and 100019L_173248) and by an ERC consolidator grant (BRAINCODES).

Author information


  1. Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research (SNS-Lab), Department of Economics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Rafael Polanía
    •  & Christian C. Ruff
  2. Leibniz Research Center for Working Environment and Human Factors, Department of Psychology and Neurosciences, TU Dortmund, Dortmund, Germany

    • Michael A. Nitsche
  3. Department of Neurology, University Medical Hospital Bergmannsheil, Bochum, Germany

    • Michael A. Nitsche


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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Rafael Polanía or Christian C. Ruff.