Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a neuromodulation technique with potential to treat eating disorders and obesity. As for any potential treatment, it is important to assess the degree to which expectation effects contribute to its reported efficacy. This study assessed the effect of tDCS on amount of food craving and eating while tightly controlling treatment expectation. N = 74 adults with overweight or obesity were informed of the known effects of tDCS to suppress craving and eating. Once electrodes were on the head, half of the participants were told they were receiving real, and the other half sham tDCS. Within these groups, approximately half actually received real and the other half sham tDCS. Stimulation parameters used were those previously found to reduce craving and eating, including in our lab: 2 mA, anode right/cathode left targeting the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for 20 min (real), or only for the first and last minute (sham). Analyses controlled for demographics, hunger, trait impulsiveness, eating motives, dieting, binge eating, suggestibility, and baseline craving and eating. Participants told they were receiving real tDCS craved and ate less than participants told they were receiving sham tDCS (both p < 0.01), regardless of tDCS condition administered. There was no main effect of real vs. sham tDCS on craving or eating or an interaction between tDCS condition and expectation. The scientific validation of tDCS as a treatment for eating-related conditions hinges on controlling for the powerful effects of expectation. This can include the type of information provided on consent forms and participants’ ability to guess real from sham conditions.
- Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex