Authors: Teselink J, Bawa KK, Koo GK, Sankhe K, Liu CS, Oh P

PMID: 34700007 DOI: 10.1016/j.arr.2021.101499


Background: Non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS) techniques have shown some promise in improving cognitive and neuropsychiatric symptoms (NPS) in people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and its prodromal stage, mild cognitive impairment (MCI). However, data from clinical trials involving NIBS have shown inconsistent results. This meta-analysis investigated the efficacy of NIBS, specifically repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) compared to sham stimulation on global cognition and NPS in people with AD and MCI.

Method: Multi-session randomized sham-controlled clinical trials were identified through MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and Embase until June 2021. Standardized mean difference (SMD) and 95% confidence interval (CI) between the active and sham treatments were calculated using random-effects meta-analyses. Included studies reported outcome measures for global cognition and/or NPS. Heterogeneity, from different NIBS techniques, disease populations, or tests used to assess global cognition or NPS, was measured using chi-square and I2, and investigated using subgroup analyses. Possible effects of covariates were also investigated using meta-regressions.

Result: The pooled meta-analyses included 19 studies measuring global cognition (Nactive=288, Nsham=264), and 9 studies investigating NPS (Nactive=165, Nsham=140). NIBS significantly improved global cognition (SMD=1.14; 95% CI=0.49,1.78; p = 0.001; I2 = 90.2%) and NPS (SMD=0.82; 95% CI=0.13, 1.50; p = 0.019; I2 = 86.1%) relative to sham stimulation in patients with AD and MCI. Subgroup analyses found these effects were restricted to rTMS but not tDCS, and to patients with AD but not MCI. Meta-regression showed that age was significantly associated with global cognition response (Nstudies=16, p = 0.020, I2 = 89.51%, R2 = 28.96%), with larger effects sizes in younger populations. All significant meta-analyses had large effect sizes (SMD ≥0.8), suggesting clinical utility of NIBS in the short term. There remained substantial heterogeneity across all subgroup analyses and meta-regressions (all I2 > 50%). Egger’s tests showed no evidence of publication biases.

Conclusion: rTMS improved global cognition and NPS in those with AD. Further studies in MCI and using tDCS will help to fully evaluate the specific NIBS techniques and populations most likely to benefit on global cognition and NPS measures. Additional research should investigate the long term clinical utility of NIBS in these populations.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Cognitive impairment; Neuropsychiatric symptoms; Non-invasive brain stimulation; Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation; Transcranial direct current stimulation.