Exciting Times for the Science of Brain Zapping

The ability to alter brain function with small currents of electricity has caused great excitement in recent years.

Electrical stimulation is a real medical intervention and it’s far from new. Way back in 46 CE, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus reported the potential of a bioelectrical fish to treat headaches. These days, scientists use a technique called transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) – including the most common variant, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – to noninvasively and painlessly run a small electrical current (approximately 1-2 mA) across the brain, via nothing more complicated than two scalp electrodes attached to a battery. Although the effects of this kind of brain stimulation aren’t fully understood, we do know that it can modulate how easy it is for brain cells to function (by increasing or decreasing their ‘excitability’, depending on the precise stimulation parameters).

Contemporary researchers are interested in tES as a medical treatment and as a way to enhance normal cognition. One application is in ‘minimally conscious’ brain-damaged patients. Electrical current applied to an area of the brain known as the frontal cortex can improve their responsiveness. Stimulation of this frontal brain area also improves depression symptoms, whether paired with cognitive behavioural therapy or delivered on its own. Researchers have also begun to apply stimulation to problems associated with age-related declines in cognitive performance. For example, a form of rhythmic electrical stimulation was found to improve older adults’ working memory to the extent that their performance was comparable with younger adults who didn’t receive the stimulation. I’ve also studied the potential of electrical brain stimulation myself, and have found that it can improve the benefits of cognitive training in younger adults and boost multitasking performance.

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