Zap your brain to boost its learning potential. Or maybe … don’t

By Trudi Taylor July 24, 2018

woman wearing cap connected to wires

Imagine a world where the impossible becomes possible. Imagine being able to pop on a pair of headphones and finding that the maths problem you have been struggling with suddenly becomes clear, or that you can pick up a musical instrument you have never even tried before and learn to play a tune with seemingly little effort. Just imagine being able to move, think and create faster than you ever have before. Well, you no longer have to imagine it. The technology is already out there and on public sale. Sound too good to be true? You might just be right…

Earlier this month Charlotte Hills invited me to join her at the European Neuro Convention in London. Charlotte is a Senior Learning Designer at Lumesse Learning and is currently completing a Psychology PhD at the University of Warwick. She is passionate about using learning principles from neuroscience and the psychological literature to create effective learning and drive adoption. I jumped at the chance to spend a day with her immersed in a different world – and I’m glad I did. I left the conference feeling inspired by all the great work being carried out to create a better life for people living with a neuro-disability.

One particular talk by Professor Michael Bannisy (Goldsmiths University and Rogue Resolutions) caught my attention. Can transcranial electric stimulation (tES) be used to aid cognition? The use of electrical stimulation on humans is nothing new – travel back to 63 A.D. and you’ll find the Ancient Romans using electric fish to treat chronic pain and even epilepsy.  Fast forward to the present day and we are using electrical stimulation to treat all kinds of conditions, from chronic pain to depression – although technology has moved on somewhat and fish are no longer required. What if we could use this technology in everyday life to boost our learning potential?

Research has suggested that tES can aid human performance in many areas including numerical cognition (Cohen Kadosh et al) and creativity (Di Bernardi Luft et al). In transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), electrodes are placed on different parts of the brain and a low level current is passed continuously between them.  The stimulation preps the brain for a task by exciting neurons in the specific area. In one particular study, a weak current was applied to participants’ parietal lobes – an area of the brain involved in numerical understanding – for 20 minutes before they began to solve a mathematical problem. Subjects who received the electrical treatment showed an enhanced ability to solve the challenge compared with the control group. Remarkably, the improvements were still seen six months after completing the training.

We are beginning to see a number of companies entering the consumer market with technology using this theory, with the promise that their product will help you truly reach your full potential. Halo Sport is just one company in this new market. They’ve released a set of headphones aimed at stimulating the part of the brain responsible for muscle movement.  The headphones work by inducing a state of ‘hyperplasticity’: by helping neurons fire together, the brain’s ability to learn and adapt is increased. Their promotional video is convincing ­– based on scientific research, the offering appears credible and almost too good to be true. And with five Olympians confirming they used the product to train for Rio, this futuristic-looking tech is certainly appealing.

Halo Sport got my interest. I was impressed with their marketing initiative. The video doesn’t once mention the product, which I would usually find frustrating. Yet I was so drawn in to the science and apparent benefits of tDCS I didn’t actually notice the lack of product-specific promotion.  The general consumer could be forgiven for being more than a little excited about the potential of this product. However, with Professor Michael Bannisy’s talk at the front of my mind, and with a degree in psychology myself, I was torn between this convincing product marketing and the need for rigorous scientific research into the effects of ‘brain zapping’. Would I use these headphones?

Although the method of selectively exciting or inhibiting brain cells is gaining prominence in neuroscience, Professor Michael Bannisy believes we must be proceed with caution. Despite the research and studies into its effects, our understanding of how tES influences the brain and individual differences in performance change following tES remains limited. A ‘one size fits all’ approach simply will not work, since factors such as skull thickness, fat, CSF (brain fluid) levels, and age can all potentially vary the effects of tES on a given individual.

We must remember that the research into the benefits of using tES are in a controlled environment with scientists overseeing the usage. The idea of using some of these consumer products without knowing the possible side effects is frightening. The headphones are designed to sit across your motor cortex, stimulating the neurons to help you with physical activity. But place the headphones slightly too far forward and you cover the frontal cortex which could inhibit your creativity; place them too far back and you risk stimulating the area of the brain responsible for your senses.

Worryingly, we are starting to see a number of consumer products hit the market in the US but without any formal safety guidelines for the selection of stimulus parameters in either tDCS or tES. Nor do we know how an atypical brain would react to electrical stimulation. In fact, a group of clinicians have already raised the alarm in an open letter to users of do-it-yourself devices, listing several areas of concern including: damaging cognitive function in other areas of the brain, unintended alterations in brain function and unbalanced risk to benefit ratios. Their fundamental message is that the effects of tDCS are unknown.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of potential in this area and the future is certainly exciting. There are concerns however, that the devices are not quite ready for the commercial market and with tempting claims that they will improve cognitive function, consumers should be made aware of the possible risks using such a device poses.

If you are interested in learning more about the neuroscience behind learning, check out Charlotte’s webinar ‘Neuroscience hacks for learning- unleash your natural brain power’. No brain zapping required!

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