Electro-Brain Stimulation Better than Smart Drugs: USAF
Air Force researchers were delighted recently to learn that they could cut training time in half by delivering a mild electrical current (two milliamperes of direct current for 30 minutes) to pilot's brains during training sessions on video simulators. The current is delivered through EEG (electroencephalographic) electrodes placed on the scalp.
...Remarkably, MRI brain scans revealed clear structural changes in the brain as soon as five days after TDCS. Neurons in the cerebral cortex connect with one another to form circuits via massive bundles of nerve fibers (axons) buried deep below the brain's surface in "white matter tracts." The fiber bundles were found to be more robust and more highly organized after TDCS. No changes were seen on the opposite side of the brain that was not stimulated by the scalp electrodes. _SciAm
"I don't know of anything that would be comparable," McKinley said, contrasting the cognitive boost of TDCS with, for example, caffeine or other stimulants that have been tested as enhancements to learning. TDCS not only accelerated learning, pilot accuracy was sustained in trials lasting up to 40 minutes. Typically accuracy in identifying threats declines steadily after 20 minutes. Beyond accelerating pilot training, TDCS could have many medical applications in the military and beyond by accelerating retraining and recovery after brain injury or disease.Since the brain is based upon electro-chemical principles, it should not be so surprising that careful, mild electrical stimulation could have a beneficial effect on normal brain function.
...Subjects definitely register the stimulation, but it is not unpleasant. "It feels like a mild tickling or slight burning," says undergraduate student Lauren Bullard, who was one of the subjects in another study on TDCS and learning reported at the meeting, along with her mentors Jung and Michael Weisend and colleagues of the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque. "Afterward I feel more alert," she says. But why?
Bullard and her co-authors sought to determine if they could measure any tangible changes in the brain after TDCS, which could explain how the treatment accelerates learning. The researchers looked for both functional changes in the brain (altered brain-wave activity) and physical changes (by examining MRI brain scans) after TDCS.
They used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to record magnetic fields (brain waves) produced by sensory stimulation (sound, touch and light, for example), while test subjects received TDCS. The researchers reported that TDCS gave a six-times baseline boost to the amplitude of a brain wave generated in response to stimulating a sensory nerve in the arm. The boost was not seen when mock TDCS was used, which produced a similar sensation on the scalp, but was ineffective in exciting brain tissue. The effect also persisted long after TDCS was stopped. The sensory-evoked brain wave remained 2.5 times greater than normal 50 minutes after TDCS. These results suggest that TDCS increases cerebral cortex excitability, thereby heightening arousal, increasing responses to sensory input, and accelerating information processing in cortical circuits. _SciAm
Of course, if mild DC electrical stimulation boosts learning and brain power in adults, one must wonder what would happen in younger individuals, whose brains are still developing? Researchers should consider gradually working with younger subjects -- starting with young adults, then working with older adolescents, and so on, younger and younger, in a careful and systematic manner -- while thoroughly evaluating the effects of brain stimulation from as many standpoints as possible.
Brave new world? Ready or not.