24 April 2011

Non-Invasive Electromagnetic Brain Stim On the Way

Neuroscientists at the University of New Mexico asked volunteers to play a video game called “DARWARS Ambush!”, developed to help train American military personnel. Half of the players received 2 milliamps of electricity to the scalp, using a device powered by a simple 9-volt battery, and they played twice as well as those receiving a much tinier jolt. The DARPA-funded study suggests direct current applied to the brain could improve learning.

This type of brain stimulation, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is controversial but could show promise for treatment of various neurological disorders and cognitive impairments _PopSci

The wide field of electromagnetic brain stimulation is likely to prove to be a fertile area of research. Because the brain itself runs on electrical currents -- with it corresponding magnetic fields -- anything that might influence or interfere with these electrical and magnetic fields are likely to influence brain activity. But many of these researchers are discovering ways to selectively augment or inhibit particular parts of the brain, reversibly. Being able to do that safely provides an incredibly powerful research tool.
The technique, which has roots in research done more than two centuries ago, is experiencing something of a revival. Clark and others see tDCS as a way to tease apart the mechanisms of learning and cognition. As the technique is refined, researchers could, with the flick of a switch, amplify or mute activity in many areas of the brain and watch what happens behaviourally. The field is "going to explode very soon and give us all sorts of new information and new questions", says Clark. And as with some other interventions for stimulating brain activity, such as high-powered magnets or surgically implanted electrodes, researchers are attempting to use tDCS to treat neurological conditions, including depression and stroke. But given the simplicity of building tDCS devices, one of the most important questions will be whether it is ethical to tinker with healthy minds — to improve learning and cognition, for example. The effects seen in experimental settings "are big enough that they would definitely have real-world consequences", says Martha Farah, a neuroethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. _Nature

And certainly, the cognition-boosting techniques will not be used only in research and therapeutic situations. They will also be used by students, bankers, lawyers, salesmen, recreational mind trippers, sex fiends, and a wide range of individuals wanting to make more or less of themselves, depending upon their particular inclinations and needs.

Here is a look at what Eric Wasserman's lab at the National Institutes of Neural Disorders and Strokes is looking at:
We study the brain systems underlying learning, executive function, and behavioral regulation, using noninvasive stimulation and imaging techniques an innovative behavioral tools. Our main clinical interest is in the physiological and neuroanatomical basis of excess mental and physicial fatigue after brain injury...Using noninvasive brain stimulation techniques and structural and functional MRI, and MR spectroscopy, we are investigating the mechanisms of rewarded behaviors, for example, learning and sustained effort, in the human brain. _NINDS
Dr. Cohen Kadosh at the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, is using brain stimulation which he feels will improve mathematical ability, among other brain functions:
By stimulating the parietal lobes, Dr Cohen Kadosh has shown that he can actually boost mathematical skills in people who are normally less good at sums. The electric current triggers the area to produce chemicals that cause brain cells to develop or change. This process — ‘neural plasticity’ — is essential to learning (our brains change structure when we take on new information).

When Dr Cohen Kadosh’s subjects had their parietal lobes stimulated for 30 minutes every day for a week, they were able to pick up maths skills through conventional lessons far more quickly and effectively than they could before.

‘It’s completely safe. The electric current is one thousand times lower than anything that could cause damage,’ he says.

Tests have shown that the subjects’ maths abilities remain boosted six months after the treatment. To someone as numerically illiterate as me, the prospect of growing a ‘maths brain’ is exciting. But Dr Cohen Kadosh’s work is at the vanguard of a medical revolution.

It heralds a high-tech world of brain medicine where electronics will be used to repair deep faults, such as depression and Parkinson’s, modify problem personalities and boost everyone’s ability to learn, remember and think creatively. _DailyMail
Neurologists have grand hopes for clinical applications of these -- and other -- electromagnetic technologies.
...brain stimulation techniques tailored to modulate individual plastic changes associated with neurological diseases might enhance clinical benefits and minimize adverse effects. In this Review, we discuss the use of two noninvasive brain stimulation techniques—repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation—to modulate activity in the targeted cortex or in a dysfunctional network, to restore an adaptive equilibrium in a disrupted network for best behavioral outcome, and to suppress plastic changes for functional advantage. We review randomized controlled studies, in focal epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, recovery from stroke, and chronic pain, to illustrate these principles, and we present evidence for the clinical effects of these two techniques. _Nature (abstract)

Here are some specific uses for transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS):
Magnetic stimulation is being used, or evaluated, in many applications. These include areas as diverse as creating 'virtual lesions' in psychology in order to investigate information processing within the human brain; treatment of depression and schizophrenia in psychiatry using stimuli at either convulsive or sub-convulsive levels; aiding the diagnosis and charting the progress of disease or mechanical damage in central and peripheral nerve pathways; stimulating cortical plasticity; and functional stimulation applications such as the treatment of incontinence, artificial respiration and the induction of speech arrest. Particularly active areas at present are investigating whether magnetic stimulation can be used as an alternative to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat severe depression, and stimulation of the motor cortex using novel pulse paradigms to encourage plasticity as an adjunct to post-stroke rehabilitation. _Scholarpedia
TMS (like tDCS) can be used to either stimulate or inhibit specific parts of the brain. When used in conjunction with behavioural therapy or sophisticated forms of feedback, these technologies can accomplish amazing therapeutic results in a rather short period of time. Keep in mind that they are still in the research and developmental stage, and may present serious hazards (seizures etc) to certain individuals.

We are surrounded by an often foolish and dysfunctional world. But there is no reason why parts of the world cannot wake up and discover how to make themselves more rational, prosperous, and fulfilled.

Adapted from an article at Al Fin, The Next Level


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