Transcranial focused ultrasound modulates the emergence of learned helplessness via midline theta modification

André Forster, Johannes Rodrigues, Philipp Ziebell, Joseph L. Sanguinetti, John J.B. Allen, Johannes Hewig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Helplessness and hopelessness are states closely related to depressive disorders. They ensue following the anticipated absence of valid behavioral options to alleviate an aversive state. One neural structure involved in the detection of such options, is the cingulate cortex (CC), which conveys the evaluation of behavior against the value of its outcome. Accordingly, CC-related EEG measures are thought to correlate to feedback evaluation but also to anxious and conflict-related states, signaling the need for further adaptation to current requirements. Against this background, this study investigated the role of CC functioning in the emergence and prevention of helpless/hopeless states by applying low-intensity transcranial focused ultrasound (litFUS) neuromodulation prior to a learned helplessness task. Method: In a randomized controlled double blind experimental setup with 55 participants, litFUS was used to inhibit the right lateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC), a region closely connected to CC modulation. Participants were instructed to play 8 games of chess against a computer that was unbeatable to them, while an EEG was recorded. Theta oscillation in midline electrodes, playing performance and self-rate measures on cognitive, affective and physiological parameters were assessed. Results: The results show a considerable influence of litFUS neuromodulation of the lPFC on midline theta activity (Fz and Pz electrode position) which in turn correlated to several psychological variables including self-report data on emotion, cognition, and arousal as well as behavioral measures (playing performance). Limitations: Due to the small sample size and sample characteristics, results cannot be generalized to the field of clinical application. A replication of results in larger samples and in context of other sonication parameters is needed to increase the robustness of results and to maximize the efficacy of litFUS application. Conclusions: We conclude that the development of learned helplessness/hopelessness could be positively influenced in its course by litFUS neuromodulation of the right lPFC. In line with previous results, especially the posterior midline electrode Pz seems to be an interesting target for further research in this field as theta activity at this electrode is correlated to control perception and motivated behavior. To our knowledge, this is the first study to use neuromodulation to monitor and manipulate the development of helplessness in the laboratory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)273-284
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
StatePublished - May 15 2023


  • Depression
  • Learned helplessness
  • Low intensity focused transcranial ultrasound
  • Midline theta

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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