Direct stimulation may increase cognitive performance
Your exam starts in an hour. You have spent the past few days studying, but you need that extra kick. You walk past the coffee maker and strap on your electrode cap for some pretest transcranial direct current stimulation.
Transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, uses electricity to prepare neurons for firing or to make them less prepared. A current from the anode, the positive electrode, encourages firing; whereas the cathode, the negative electrode, discourages it.
By placing electrodes on the skull in different locations, one can stimulate different regions of the brain, associated with different functions.
Rick Houser and Stephen Thoma, two professors of educational psychology, are researching the effects of this stimulation on the ability to perform mathematical computations.
“Essentially what we’re trying to do with our study is to look at if we stimulate those areas with a positive electrode, if we can increase the ability for students to perform mathematical tasks,” Houser said.
If the results prove tDCS stimulation is effective in increasing performance, Houser said it could have some potentially problematic results on education and students abusing the technology.
“There’s concern that people will learn ‘this is something helpful to me, therefore I’m going to start administering it to myself,’” Houser said. “So that’s the main concern, is that some people might start selling these things online that are not really that good of quality. Ours is not inexpensive, it’s thousands of dollars, but you can buy a cheap one for about $500. I’m not sure what it does for you.”
Houser also said the technology could potentially heighten the divide between higher- and lower-income students, who might not be able to afford the tDCS device.
“Theoretically it could give an advantage,” Houser said. “And so the question becomes how do you make that available to people.”
Thoma said students who would be able to purchase the devices would have an edge on their classmates.
“Kids going off to school with their BMW and their caps and other kids coming in with their Volkswagens and no caps – yeah, if it has an effect then it would certainly be an unfair advantage,” Thoma said.
Whether or not this new technique for heightening brain activity catches on, Houser said the tDCS technology could be less risky than some other common stimulants.
“I personally prefer people use a low brain stimulation with no side effects to something like Adderall,” Houser said. “That’s just my bias.”
Addie Bunn, a student justice of the College of Engineering academic honor council, said she thinks it would be OK for students to use this technology if it proves to be safe, but she would want to wait until more research has been conducted.
“I think it would be an unfair advantage for students who could afford it, but there are other techniques that can be used to improve cognitive motor skills and ability that don’t cost a fortune,” Bunn said.
Houser and Thoma have been testing the success of the technology on statistics students by teaching the students a new statistical technique they have never seen before while wearing the caps with varying or no levels of electron stimulation. The students then are given time to follow the technique and come up with a correct answer. Houser and Thoma apply the current on areas related to the mathematical computations, strategic planning and attention, the intraparietal sulcus and the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.
The effects of one administration of tDCS stimulation usually last around 60-90 minutes.
Thoma is waiting for clearance from the institutional review board to begin a study of ethical decision-making, where he will explore what the impact of different parts of the brain are on the choices people make in moral quandaries. Specifically, he will stimulate and discourage, the emotional side of the brain and the more cognitive side of the brain and monitor what changes that makes in the way people respond to ethical dilemmas.
This research will complement its forbearers in functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI research, of which regions of the brain are activated during ethical decision-making.
“I have already a road map of where the hotspots are, and with tDCS, I can manipulate those hot spots, either dampening them down a little bit, or waking them up,” Thoma said.
TDCS has also been studied to help increase vision for the impaired and treat stroke victims. For stroke victims, it works by opening up neurons in unaffected areas of the brain to create pathways around the damaged areas.
Since tDCS technology is relatively new – testing began around the 2000s – there have been no studies of long-term effects of the stimulation.
To ensure the comfort of the test subjects, the researchers place wet sponges between the electrodes and the skin, but Houser said the device has posed no health risks.
“Of the 200-plus studies, no one’s ever been harmed by this, but if we don’t put saline solution between the electrodes and the head, then it could get red,” Houser said. “That’s the worst that happens. You could feel a little bit of tingling.”