Forget using caffeine to help you focus on tasks -- imagine stimulating the brain with a jolt of electricity instead. That’s what researchers at Vanderbilt University are doing… using electrical stimulation to speed up the brain and help it learn from mistakes.
Laura McClenahan, Researcher, Vanderbilt University, isn’t just playing a game. This fitted red cap is actually stimulating her brain.
“It feels like a mild, itching sensation,” McClenahan told Ivanhoe.
In a new study published in the journal Neuroscience, researchers at Vanderbilt University are proving it’s possible to manipulate our ability to learn by using a mild electrical current.
“So, essentially we can make you learn faster with 20 minutes of non-invasive electrical stimulation,” Robert Reinhart, PhD Candidate, Vanderbilt University, told Ivanhoe.
Reinhart says the thinking cap activates the frontal lobe—the part of the brain involved in problem-solving, memory and judgment.
“We’ve found a way to causally up-regulate, increase and boost these brain activities related to monitoring,” Reinhart said.
Not only can you learn faster, but depending on the direction of the current, your mental performance can also be slowed down.
“It’s also systematic and reliable and enough for us to be satisfied with gaining that kind of causal control,” Reinhart explains.
Researchers say the learning effects last about 5 hours.
Electrical current therapy is also being studied for mental health conditions to see if, in the future, the technology could also be used to treat schizophrenia and ADHD.
BACKGROUND: Learning disabilities affect the brain's ability to receive, process, store, respond to and communicate information. There are a group of disorders. According to the National Centers For Learning Disabilities, the sooner the issue is recognized and identified the easier it could be to deal with the challenges that come along with the disability. Learning disabilities can affect speaking, reading, writing, spelling, reasoning and mathematics. According to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control, 7.6 percent of children ages 3-17 in the United States have learning disabilities. (Source:
SIGNS/SYMPTOMS: Researchers with the National Institutes of Health don't know exactly what causes learning disabilities but they may be associated with differences in brain structure. They can be present at birth or inherited. The learning disabilities may be related to areas of the brain that deal with language. If a developing fetus is exposed to alcohol and drugs, this could also lead to learning disabilities. Infants with poor nutrition and exposure to toxins like lead in water and paint could also be at risk of learning disabilities. Learning disabilities can later in life can be attributed to dementia or traumatic brain injury. (Source: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/learning/conditioninfo/pages/causes.aspx)
NEW TECHNOLOGY: Electrical current therapy is now being used to manipulate the ability to learn. Electrical stimulation is used for 20 minutes to help people learn faster. This technique activates the frontal lobe or the part of the brain that deals with problem solving memory and judgment. The current can also help with mental performance. Researchers say that the effects of a 20-minute stimulation can transfer to other tasks and lasts about five hours. The therapy uses an elastic headband that secures two electrodes conducted by saline-soaked sponges to the cheek and the crown of the head. Study participants report a few seconds of tingling or itching at the beginning of each stimulation session. They made fewer errors and learned from their mistakes quicker. Researchers say the success rate is better than that observed in studies of pharmaceuticals or other types of psychological therapy.
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Robert Reinhart, PhD Candidate
Office: (615) 322-5540
Robert Reinhart, PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University talks about how researchers are using electrical stimulation to speed up the brain.
What is this thinking cap all about?
Robert: We set out to test specific hypotheses about how particular brain waves function and essentially we stumbled upon a way to make people learn faster. The thinking cap is trans cranial direct current stimulation in this case. It's one way to safely and noninvasively stimulate the brain. Our experiment goes roughly like this. We have people come into the laboratory. We noninvasively stimulate their head in a specific way for 20 minutes. Then we have them perform a simple computer task, where they push buttons in response to different stimuli appearing on the computer screen, while we record their electrical brain activity. There’s particular brain activities that are related to error processing and feedback processing and we wanted to test competing hypotheses about what those components really do, what their functional relevance is. So, we designed a task in which people would make a lot of errors so we could measure those error related components and we looked at those components after people were stimulated with different types of stimulation, including a sham stimulation day, where people feel the tingling sensation, but we weren’t stimulating them at all. And then we compare across stimulation days and we found that with one direction of current flow, you pull current through the brain in a particular way, you can regulate this error processing brain activity and you can make people perform more accurately on the task and you can make them learn faster. Then if we switch the current flow direction on the same people and push it through the brain we can make them perform worse and learn slower. That was the big result, obtaining bidirectional causal control which is different from most research in psychology and neuroscience. Most research relies on correlational methods, where you change different cognitive demands of a task and observe changes in brain activity and behavior. So in this way it's a powerful neuroscientific technique that allows to metaphorically reach into the head and causally control certain brain activities that are related to certain behaviors. The upshot is we can make you learn faster after only 20 minutes of noninvasive electrical stimulation.
So instead of getting stimulation from coffee, which does that activate, the same area?
Robert: From what I understand several brain chemicals are increased with caffeine, it’s not as specific an effect like a medication which can target one neurotransmitter, one chemical in the brain like dopamine such as Adderall or Ritalin. From what I understand that targets just that brain chemical. But coffee kind of up regulates everything.
What area of the brain are we talking about?
Robert: This stimulation is over roughly medial frontal cortex, so front of the head on the midline. And we think we’re tagging regions in the brain like rostral interior cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area, pre-supplementary motor area, arrears that have been previously hypothesized to be involved in how well we monitor our behavior, monitor our thoughts, and the outcomes of our behavior. With this type of brain stimulation we are using it's likely that we are stimulating areas on the surface of the brain, the cortex and less deeper areas. We really don’t know, we have to do more research. This is just the first initial study. Future research will look at images of the brain with MRI, for example, after stimulation and find out what specific locations in space that we are activating.
Right now though is this limited to the research lab?
Robert: Right now it’s a laboratory task, so another great next step is to discover how well our results translate to real-world learning. We’re interested in that. We have studies underway looking at that. But this was just in the laboratory for now. We show that we can enhance feedback based association learning, which is a simple type of learning, it’s figuring out the mapping between the color of the stimulus on a computer screen to a button on a handheld gamepad, so just making an association between stimulus color and a certain button press response. There’s a variety of other types of learning we’re interested in and also learning in more ecologically valid real-world situations. So, for example just reading a book and then probing how well you comprehend the passage you read after stimulation relative to a sham day.
Is this just helping basically with focus?
Robert: The modulations we see in the brain are of brain waves that have been implicated in monitoring so based on the evidence we have it appears as if we’ve increased, we’ve strengthened those pieces of brain tissue that are critical for how well you monitor yourself. You make evaluations of your behavior and the outcomes of your behavior. We think we’re strengthening a kind of performance monitoring adaptive control type of system in the brain.
Could it have more implications than just learning?
So basically the way it works then is you first have to put the gel on, can you explain how that all goes together?
Robert: Yes. If you were in this experiment you would come into the lab and we would attach the EEG cap. It’s just electrodes embedded in nylon cap that fits over your head. It allows us to measure noninvasively your electrical brain activity. We’d fit you with that cap, we'd attach facial electrodes to track your eye movements and then we’d put on the trans cranial direct current stimulation which is a battery-powered device that delivers extremely weak, electrical current. And for us it was over frontal central midline electrodes, over the frontal cortex and then as a reference, the other electrode was over the right cheek. That’s held together with a headband. Then we stimulate you for 20 minutes and you barely feel it. It’s just like light tingling, itching, poking, sensation right underneath the active electrodes. Usually just in the first 30 seconds or so of stimulation, sometimes it periodically returns a few times during the 20 minute session. And then we have you come in to our booth and perform our experimental task for two hours while we record your electrical brain activity. That’s one testing day, but then we have the same people come back and do the exact same thing the only difference being that the direction of the current flow with transcurrent direct stimulation is reversed. So instead of injecting current on the top of the head we’d pull it out, and again you just feel that slight tingling, itching, poking sensation. And then on the third day would be a sham day kind of a baseline day where we’d ramp up stimulation the first 30 seconds to simulate that tingling sensation that people endorse and then we’d ramp it down. And then we’d ramp it up again in the middle and at the end of the session. We’d also have people try to guess the presence and direction of stimulation. We found that people were blind to whether they were being stimulated or not.
Have you done anything yet, you said you are using very low stimulants but have you amped up the stimulant and seen what that would do to them?
Robert: No, the reason is there’s many safety studies in the literature that show given the size of the electrode and the intensity and the duration that we’re using 1.5 milliamps is a safe level. And that maximum is 2 milliamps and so to go over that wouldn’t be safe. We’re staying within the safety range.
What is a Sham day?
Robert: Sham day is like a placebo. The sham day is when you kind of fake people out. You’re turning on the stimulator for a brief 30 seconds just to give them the sense that they are getting stimulation so they feel the tingling feeling but they’re not getting stimulated. It’s our baseline.
Anything else you want to say?
Robert: I think this is really exciting work and there’s fertile ground in the future to test new hypotheses, to give researchers a causal method to test new hypotheses about how certain brain activities work, such as those related to medial frontal cortex, and potentially to help people that struggle with learning problems. Certainly fertile ground to possibly remediate learning disabilities in people and patient populations. Also healthy volunteers, like you said related to coffee, people who just want to increase their cognitive performance on a task. So I think it’s really exciting.
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