Maybe those 19th-century doctors were on to something when they used electroshock therapy as a treatment for a myriad of medical problems. New findings that were recently reported to the Society for Neuroscience indicate that transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) can increase the rate at which people learn.
Tests were conducted on Air Force pilots and researchers discovered that delivering a mild electrical current (two milliamperes of direct current) to a pilot’s brain for thirty minutes during training cut training time in half. The current is delivered via EEG electrodes attached to the scalp.
When asked to compare the cognitive boost of TDCS to caffeine or other stimulants that have been tested as learning enhancers, biomedical engineer Andy McKinley stated, “I don’t know of anything that would be comparable.”
Just in case TDCS makes you think of the electroshock therapy that was mentioned earlier, the consequences of using TDCS aren’t as extreme, with one test subject saying, “It feels like a mild tickling or slight burning.” Personally, mild burning is too high a price for reduced learning times so I don’t see myself volunteering for these studies any time soon.
The big question being asked, according to Scientific American, is how does electrical stimulation enhance learning, and some possibilities are already being considered.
Magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used to study brain waves to look for any functional changes in the brain, while MRI scans were used to locate any physical changes. Both tests revealed interesting results. The MEG shows that test subjects showed a six-time baseline boost to the amplitude of a brain wave when they received electric stimulation to a sensory nerve in the arm, and the effects lasted up to 50 minutes past the time when the stimulation was received.
MRI scans revealed clear structural changes as soon as five days after the application of TDCS, with neuron bundles in the cerebral cortex, known as white matter tracts, being more robust and more highly organized after treatment. The side of the brain that didn’t receive electric stimulation shows no changes.
With changes recorded in both the physical and functional areas, the next step is to look for changes on a cellular level. To achieve those results, brain tissue will be taken from participants in TDCS studies that undergo necessary brain surgery so that tissue can be removed as a required part of their treatment.
It’s been known for some time that electrical impulses are firing off all the time in the brain. Is enhanced learning just a simple matter of increasing the current to increase performance or is there more to it that is still yet to be discovered?