Stroke is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide and aphasia among survivors is common. Current speech and language therapy (SLT) strategies have only limited effectiveness in improving aphasia. A possible adjunct to SLT for improving SLT outcomes might be non-invasive brain stimulation by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to modulate cortical excitability and hence to improve aphasia.
To assess the effects of tDCS for improving aphasia in people who have had a stroke.
We searched the Cochrane Stroke Group Trials Register (June 2018), CENTRAL (Cochrane Library, June 2018), MEDLINE (1948 to June 2018), Embase (1980 to June 2018), CINAHL (1982 to June 2018), AMED (1985 to June 2018), Science Citation Index (1899 to June 2018), and seven additional databases. We also searched trial registers and reference lists, handsearched conference proceedings and contacted authors and equipment manufacturers.
We included only randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and randomised controlled cross-over trials (from which we only analysed the first period as a parallel group design) comparing tDCS versus control in adults with aphasia due to stroke.
Two review authors independently assessed trial quality and risk of bias, and extracted data. If necessary, we contacted study authors for additional information. We collected information on dropouts and adverse events from the trials.
We included 21 trials involving 421 participants in the qualitative synthesis. Three studies with 112 participants used formal outcome measures for our primary outcome measure of functional communication - that is, measuring aphasia in a real-life communicative setting. There was no evidence of an effect (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.17, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.20 to 0.55; P = 0.37; I² = 0%; low quality of evidence; inverse variance method with random-effects model; higher SMD reflecting benefit from tDCS; moderate quality of evidence). At follow-up, there also was no evidence of an effect (SMD 0.14, 95% CI -0.31 to 0.58; P = 0.55; 80 participants ; 2 studies; I² = 0%; very low quality of evidence; higher SMD reflecting benefit from tDCS; moderate quality of evidence).For our secondary outcome measure, accuracy in naming nouns at the end of intervention, there was evidence of an effect (SMD 0.42, 95% CI 0.19 to 0.66; P = 0.0005; I² = 0%; 298 participants; 11 studies; inverse variance method with random-effects model; higher SMD reflecting benefit from tDCS; moderate quality of evidence). There was an effect for the accuracy in naming nouns at follow-up (SMD 0.87, 95% CI 0.25 to 1.48; P = 0.006; 80 participants; 2 studies; I² = 32%; low quality of evidence); however the results were not statistically significant in our sensitivity analysis regarding the assumptions of the underlying correlation coefficient for imputing missing standard deviations of change scores. There was no evidence of an effect regarding accuracy in naming verbs post intervention (SMD 0.19, 95% CI -0.68 to 1.06; P = 0.67; I² = 0%; 21 participants; 3 studies; very low quality of evidence). We found no studies examining the effect of tDCS on cognition in people with aphasia after stroke. We did not find reported serious adverse events and the proportion of dropouts and adverse events was comparable between groups (odds ratio (OR) 0.54, 95% CI 0.21 to 1.37; P = 0.19; I² = 0%; Mantel-Haenszel method with random-effects model; 345 participants; 15 studies; low quality of evidence).