Boost your brain with electricity or magnetism

This post is also available in Dutch.

Better thinking ability – to most this would be very welcome. But what if this ability would be improved by magnetic or electric stimulation of your brain? Would you still be open to it?
Power Brain!

Image by Allan Ajifo, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

To be honest, I would like to have better memory or be able to better concentrate. You too? Then I have good news: nowadays, changing your brain function is possible. Provided you are open to a session of electric or magnetic stimulation.

Pulses to the scalp
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) are the two most common brain stimulation techniques. In these techniques weak magnetic or electric pulses are applied to the scalp, which increase or decrease brain activity in (different) brain areas. The exact effect on your thinking ability and your behavior depend on the stimulated area and the strength and frequency of the applied pulses. In this way stimulation can result in disruption and enhancement.

Disrupted speech
In the film clip below you can see how the speech area of a journalist is being stimulated by TMS. The journalist recites a rhyme while now and then receiving a magnetic pulse (recognised by the ticking sound). During every pulse he cannot speak momentarily.

Improved brain
Research in healthy adults demonstrates that thinking ability can be improved by brain stimulation. For example, participants improved on a difficult memory task (the n-back task, which is explained in this blog’s film clip) after their brain was stimulated by tDCS for 10 minutes. The pulses can also improve attention, goal-directed behavior and learning. Effects can even subsist for hours to days after the stimulation.

Brain stimulation can also be beneficial for people with a depression. Their mood can improve as a result of stimulation, even if medication does not help. Moreover, brain stimulation can be used to treat patients with brain damage due, for example, to stroke (read more in this blog). The technique could also be effective for treating anxiety disorders, pain disorders and addiction.

Too good to be true?
Based on the findings discussed above brain stimulation appears to be the ideal way to improve your thinking ability. Yet, not all scientists are all that enthusiastic. In a recent review, for example, it is indicated that there is limited agreement between different studies in healthy participants.

By way of example, the result of one study is that stimulation makes you faster but not more accurate on a memory task. A different study subsequently shows the opposite effect. According to the writers of the review this may imply that brain stimulation might actually have no effect.

Regarding the applicability of the technique for the treatment of patients, we also have to be careful in drawing conclusions according to another group of researchers. These researchers indicate that there is, among other things, a lack of reliable research.

A boost for my brain?
Before I will upgrade my thinking ability by magnetic or electric pulses, I would like to see more convincing evidence. It appears that brain stimulation could have beneficial effects, which makes it very valuable to continue examining this technique in future studies. For now, unfortunately, I still have to put up with my imperfect memory and concentration.

This blog was written by Angelique.
Edited by Jeroen.

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