Above: Image © istockphoto.com/timoph

The future looks bright! Or, to be more precise, your future self looks bright. Scientists have discovered a way to make you smarter and happier at the flick of a switch. In the future, boosting your brainpower and mood could become as easy as brushing your teeth. Who wouldn’t want that?

Did you know? Pilots whose brains were “zapped” using trans-cranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) while using a flight simulator showed accelerated learning and improved accuracy.The brain is an extremely complex electrical circuit, a combination of many smaller sub-circuits, each with its specific location and function. The sub-circuits are made up of basic components called neurons, whose membranes work like power packs and whose cell extensions, called axons, act like wires to conduct electricity.

Bursts of electricity must occur within specific sub-circuits for the brain to carry out different tasks. And the rate at which these bursts occur affects how well the brain can memorize, calculate, speak, focus, etc.

So if brainpower relies on electricity, is it possible to give it an external boost? It turns out that the answer is yes! A recently-developed technique, called trans-cranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), has been shown to improve various aspects of brain health, including attention, language ability, and mood.

As its name suggests, TDCS sends small and continuous (direct) streams of electrical current across the brain (trans cranium) and through the region controlling the function that needs to be stimulated. The current is delivered using a headset adjusted so it flanks the targeted part of the brain. By hooking up the headset to a power pack, streams of current flow through the brain between the negative and the positive ends. The result? Brain performance in the targeted area improves!

For example, if the goal were to boost memory, the current would need to pass through the very front of the brain, behind the forehead. To improve attention, both the very front and the region behind and above the ears would be targeted. And to enhance language functions, current would need to flow through the left side of the brain.

In clinical studies, TDCS devices were found effective in treating stroke-related brain damage as well as mental-health conditions such as depression. And there is growing scientific evidence that TDCS can improve learning and sharpen motor skills.

Although no official regulatory or approval process has been put in place, TDCS gear is being sold and has so far proven safe for human use. In fact, headsets are simple enough that you could make your own at home, which means brain hacking could be the next do-it-yourself craze. Meanwhile, the US military is trying to determine if TDCS could be used to improve the combat performance of military personnel.

Did you know? Research into trans-cranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) has led at least one video game device manufacturer to develop a special headset that electrically stimulates gamers’ brains.So does TDCS have any potential drawbacks? The number one concern is safety. Although the technique relies on gentle currents and shows no short-term negative effects when properly applied, the use of DIY or makeshift devices can be risky. As with all things electrical, professional supervision is key and potential hazards are many. For example, you could improperly connect the headset and achieve the opposite of what you want, such as inhibiting rather than stimulating your language skills. And even if TDCS is done right, longer-term negative effects may still be discovered. Some negative side effects have already been reported, such as an unusually sluggish brain a few days after stimulation. The technology is still very new, so only time will tell.

There are also ethical concerns associated with TDCS. Devices could conceivably be used in a discriminatory fashion, made compulsory, or employed as a method of mind control. And some caution against pursuing this technology because they view it as a crutch that would weaken humans’ natural abilities and stamina.

As a matter of fact, humans have faced a self-improvement dilemma for ages. Weapons, for instance, improved our hunting but reduced our physical strength. Or consider vaccination, which have greatly improved public health but have weakened our natural immunity.

Are new technologies empowering or do they undermine human nature? What is the long-term price of technological progress? While the debate continues, it is important that decisions benefit not just the current generation but future generations as well. How do you think TDCS should be used?

Learn more!

Interview with Sterling Cooley (2014)

John Naulty and Pierre Karashchuk, Cognitive Technology Blog

An interview with the developer of a portable TDCS device. Includes images of devices and diagrams showing how they work.

Map of the human brain (2012)

CBC News Health

An interactive map of the brain that provides a “region-by-region exploration of how the brain functions.”

Wired for Thought – Should We Use Devices to Make Us Smarter? (2014)

Roy H. Hamilton and Jihad Zreik, Scientific American

Shocks to the Brain Improve Mathematical Abilities (2013)

Ewen Callaway, Scientific American

Brain stimulation: The military's brain-zapping project (2014)

Emma Young, BBC Future

DIY Kit Overclocks Your Brain With Direct Current (2012)

Christopher Mims, MIT Technology Review

Spark of Genius – A new technology promises to supercharge your brain with electricity. Is it too good to be true? (2013)

Will Oremus, Slate

Amping Up Brain Function: Transcranial Stimulation Shows Promise in Speeding Up Learning (2011)

R. Douglas Fields, Scientific American

News articles discussing how TDCS can improve brain function and the issues raised by this possibility.

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Helps Stroke Patients Swallow Properly (2012)

Petra Rattue, Medical News Today

The Current Status of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation as a Treatment for Depression (2014)

William K. Silverstein, Zafiris J. Daskalakis and Daniel M. Blumberger, Psychiatric Times

News articles discussing the use of TDCS could in medical treatments.

Magdalena Pop

Magda Popp

I am a biochemist and educator working to increase students’ motivation for learning science. I earned my PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen (Germany), where I did research on human viral infections, primarily HIV/AIDS. In 2001 I started teaching high-school science in Canada, and in 2013 I became a mentor for Alberta's high school teams participating in the international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition. Writing articles for CurioCity is one of the ways in which I follow my passion for sparking genuine excitement and curiosity about science. Check out my blog - School Sense - here.

En tant que biochimiste et éducatrice, je travaille afin de susciter l’intérêt des élèves pour les sciences. J’ai obtenu mon doctorat de l’Institut Max Planck de chimie biophysique à Göttingen, en Allemagne. C’est là que j’ai fait des recherches sur les infections virales humaines, principalement le VIH/SIDA. En 2001, j’ai commencé à enseigner les sciences aux élèves du secondaire au Canada. En 2013, j’ai été un mentor pour les équipes albertaines participant à l’iGEM, une compétition internationale de machines génétiquement modifiées. La rédaction d’articles pour CurioCité est une des façons dont j’essaie de susciter un véritable enthousiasme pour les sciences. On peut visiter mon blogue, « School Sense », en cliquant ici.

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