Saturday, January 28, 2012

How to Improve Your Brain with Electric Shocks

*How to Improve Your Brain with Electric Shocks*  

*By John Cloud / Source: **Time Magazine<>*

The other day, some friendly scientists in Philadelphia attached electrodes
to my head -- one just above and behind my right ear, and the other on my
left cheekbone -- and ran electricity through my brain.

As they did, I took a computerized memory test. My scores on the test
significantly improved from an earlier test I took without the electricity.
It turns out you can tune up someone's brain like a car battery. I felt --
and looked -- a bit like a Frankenstein creature, but the results were

Welcome to the promising world of transcranial direct current stimulation
(tDCS), a highly refined, very safe and relatively cheap biomedical
treatment that is being studied for use not only in improving memory but
treating depression and epilepsy.

The scientists who demonstrated tDCS for me -- Ingrid Olson and David McCoy
of Temple University's psychology department; and Dr. David Wolk, a
neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania -- recently co-authored
(along with two other researchers) an article for the November issue of
Neuropsychologia about the use of tDCS to improve memory.

The paper shows that just 15 minutes of tDCS can help with a common problem
(especially for those of us heading into middle age): remembering people's

The idea that the brain is essentially an electrical-wiring board is not
new. As soon as electricity became common in the early part of the 20th
century, neurologists began using electricity rather than harsh chemicals
like metrazol to induce convulsions in people with severe mental illness.
For centuries, inducing convulsions had been a crude but often useful way
of resetting the brain's circuitry.

Today, electroshock therapy (which psychiatrists call electroconvulsive
therapy) is painless because patients are required to be put under
anesthesia before they receive it. (Jack Nicholson's character in One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Randle McMurphy, did not receive that courtesy.)
But scientists have also developed far more refined ways of using
electricity in the brain: now they can stimulate certain neural regions for
specific purposes without the troublesome side effect of a grand mal
seizure. One method is transcranial magnetic stimulation -- which pushes
neurons around with a magnetic wand waved around your head.

Another is the one I received, tDCS. It uses just 1.5 milliamps of
electricity, which is such a small amount that you can't really feel it.
There's a little tingling, but it's ephemeral.

The reason that the Philadelphia scientists attached one electrode just
northwest of my right ear is that my anterior temporal lobe lies behind my
skull in that spot. From brain imaging, we know that name recall originates
in the anterior temporal lobes. I have always had a terrible time
remembering names, which might mean that my ATLs were always a little weak,
but you can also suffer ATL damage if you have a stroke or another common
medical condition called "being over 40 years old."

The electricity is thought to enhance neural firing in the ATL. After I got
to the lab in Philadelphia, the scientists attached the electrodes to me
and then had me take two memory tests. The tests asked me to recall the
names of famous (and semi-famous) people whose photos appeared for 7 sec.
on a screen in front of me. There's Nelson Mandela -- easy. Ronald Reagan
-- easy. But then a picture of Chuck Yeager, who has a strong historical
presence but who is difficult to recognize by face if you were born after
1965 or so. And then there's a photo of Mary Lou Retton back in her Olympic
days. Remember that face? It took me the full 7 sec. to do so.

Your brain spins when you see photos of someone like Retton. You know that
you know the face, but her name just sits on the tip of your tongue. What
tDCS does is fire your ATL in a way that pushes the name from the tip of
your tongue out of your mouth. I showed a small improvement during the tDCS
session with people names -- and a huge (more than double) improvement in
my recall of names of landmarks like the World War II Memorial, Stonehenge,
and Mount Kilimanjaro. In the first session, I often gave up on landmark
names; in the second, tDCS seemed to give me a little push.

So is all this just a placebo response? In other words, did I do better
because I expected to do better? That could be it, but it's difficult for
participants to tell which session is real and which one is fake because
you have all that Frankenstein stuff on your head during both. There is
that slight tingling during the tDCS session, but not everyone recognizes
it, according to Olson, the Temple University psychologist and co-author of
the paper.

Unfortunately, there aren't immediate consumer applications for tDCS: the
machine itself, which is manufactured by a U.K. company called Magstim ,
costs roughly $10,000. (Also, you wouldn't want to walk around with those
electrodes on your head.) But as a short-term treatment for those whose
memories have been impaired by stroke or another medical condition, tDCS
could be a vital way of helping them to turn a tip-of-the-tongue response
into a confident answer.

*Brought to you by: Lawyer Asad*

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