Electrode Enhanced Learning—Anything Wrong With That?


Electrode enhanced learning

Nature News is reporting experiments in which running just a little bit of current through the front of a person's brain appears to dramatically improve his or her ability to learn. While acknowledging that some hokey claims have been made for transcranial direct-current stimulation, Nature reports:

Last year a succession of volunteers sat down in a research lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico to play DARWARS Ambush!, a video game designed to train US soldiers bound for Iraq. Each person surveyed virtual landscapes strewn with dilapidated buildings and abandoned cars for signs of trouble — a shadow cast by a rooftop sniper, or an improvised explosive device behind a rubbish bin. With just seconds to react before a blast or shots rang out, most forgot about the wet sponge affixed to their right temple that was delivering a faint electric tickle. The volunteers received a few milliamps of current at most, and the simple gadget used to deliver it was powered by a 9-volt battery.

It might sound like some wacky garage experiment, but Vincent Clark, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, says that the technique, called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), could improve learning. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded the research in the hope that it could be used to sharpen soldiers' minds on the battlefield. Yet for all its simplicity, it seems to work.

Volunteers receiving 2 milliamps to the scalp (about one-five-hundredth the amount drawn by a 100-watt light bulb) showed twice as much improvement in the game after a short amount of training as those receiving one-twentieth the amount of current. "They learn more quickly but they don't have a good intuitive or introspective sense about why," says Clark.  …

…tDCS is also receiving attention for its potential to enhance the minds of healthy people. In addition to Clark's work showing enhanced ability to see concealed threats, other studies with tDCS have shown improvements in working memory, word association and complex problem-solving. Most of these studies address scientific questions — but one neuroscientist unabashedly aims to boost the brains of healthy people.

Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia, hopes to develop "a thinking cap", a tDCS device that corporate executives or advertising copywriters might use to bump up their creativity before walking into a brainstorming meeting. Snyder is cagey about how far he is in product development — but his latest demonstration, published this February, garnered plenty of attention. Snyder claims to have boosted people's flair for sudden insight by stimulating their anterior temporal lobes. People who received tDCS were two to three times more likely than those receiving sham stimulation to solve a creativity problem in which they raced against the clock to spell out maths equations with matchsticks.

Naturally, some ethicists are worried about the morality of using the technique:

… wider adoption raises ethical concerns similar to those that surround mind-enhancing drugs such as Adderall and Modafinil, which some students take as study aids. Students might secretly 'electrodope' with tDCS before a university entrance exam to inflate their scores. Ethicists worry that this will give some an unfair advantage or create a culture in which people feel pressured to use such devices. None of the studies published so far have shown a type of mind-sharpening that would help in such exams, says Farah, but that might simply be a matter of targeting the right brain areas. "It would not surprise me" if such effects were possible, she says.

If everyone has access and it's voluntary, I see no ethical problem with using tDCS.

Caveat: I personally would wait for the commercialization of the "thinking cap" rather than rig up some wires and a 9-volt battery at home.