Electromagnet energies applied from outside the head have shown a wide range of both physical and mental enhancements, including faster learning, improved attention, increased vigilance and better handling of multiple simultaneous tasks. Academic journals are filling up with case reports and preliminary trials of the technologies to help people with depression, autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, obsessive–compulsive disorder, addiction, anxiety and many more cognitive problems. Benefits from ‘Brain-doping’ as it is beginning to be called, rival those of pharmaceutical performance and learning enhancers.
The energies may be applied as either strong electromagnetic pulses (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS) or through weak electrical currents applied directly to the scalp (transcranial Direct or Alternating Current Stimulation, tDCS or tACS).
The US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) is working with Halo Neuroscience in San Francisco, California, to test whether stimulating the brain with electricity can improve the performance of ski jumpers by making it easier for them to hone their skills. Other research suggests that targeted brain stimulation can reduce an athlete’s ability to perceive fatigue.
The idea of using magnets or electric currents to treat psychiatric or learning disorders — or just to enhance cognition — has generated a flurry of excitement over the past ten years. The technique is thought to work by activating neural circuits or by making it easier for neurons to fire. The research is still in its infancy, but at least 10,000 adults have undergone such stimulation, and it seems to be safe — at least in the short term.
Interest is growing, however, in whether such technologies might have even greater benefits in children. Particularly promising is TMS’s cheaper and more-portable cousin, transcranial direct-current stimulation (TDCS). Fairley House in London, which specializes in helping children with learning difficulties, is possibly the first school in the world to have offered pupils the chance to undergo electrical brain stimulation. The stimulation was done as part of an experiment in which twelve eight- to ten-year-olds wore an electrode-equipped cap while they played a video game. Neuroscientist Roi Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford, UK, who led the pilot study in 2013, is one of a handful of researchers across the world who are investigating whether small, specific areas of a child’s brain can be safely stimulated to overcome learning difficulties.
US military scientists have developed a device to improve the cognitive abilities of servicemen by sending electrical pulses to specific parts of the brain’s cortex to help neurons fire. “The findings provide new evidence that tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) has the ability to augment and enhance multitasking capability in a human operator,” and the effect is “profound,” the study says.
With regard to safety of EM Brain Stimulation, Neil Levy, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, warns that this technology could be used without regulation causes concern, and young people whose brains are developing may try to experiment with higher currents than those used in lab tests, he added.
“If you use high currents you can damage the brain,” Levy said.
Nevertheless, the discovery is a breakthrough, and could prove very helpful, he concluded.
“It may have a leveling-up effect, because it is cheap and enhancers tend to benefit the people that perform less well.”
What remains to be seen is how long the enhancement can last, the scientists wrote.
“Future research should be conducted to determine the longevity of the enhancement of transcranial direct current stimulation on multitasking performance, which has yet to be accomplished.”