Monday, November 04, 2013

A Truly Effective Thinking Cap

An Extra Jolt of Brainpower?
Nigel Parry
The New York Times

For all of you readers -- like Thomas Pynchon and me -- who are slow learners, there's hope! Dan Hurley, in "Jumper Cables for the Mind" (The New York Times Magazine, November 1, 2013), reports astonishing findings from the world of science on something called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). No, sorry, there's nothing about transcranial alternating-current stimulation even though that would've made for a better acronym (tACS). Anyway, the electrifying news is that weak volts of electricity to the scalp can enhance your learning and stimulate hair growth. Okay, I lied about hair growth, but the enhanced learning is true. This is no bolt from the blue, either! Research goes back thirty years:
In 1981, Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, reported that by applying extremely low doses of direct-current electricity -- one-third of a milliamp, not enough to power a hearing aid -- to the heads of healthy volunteers, he could speed their response on a simple test of reaction time.
But other scientists -- doubtless needing scalp stimulation themselves -- were slow to react to Birbaumer's findings and conduct experiments of their own, with over a decade passing before more work was done, this time by a certain A. Priori, whose work not only confirmed Birbaumer's but, in doing so, also demonstrated that one's name is not necessarily one's fate:
The Italian neurophysiologist Alberto Priori began his own experiments in 1992, applying just a tiny bit more electricity, about half a milliamp. He found that enough of the electricity crossed through volunteers' skulls -- electrons flowing from the cathodal electrode to the anodal electrode -- to cause brain cells near the anodal to become excited.
But those other scientists couldn't get excited over Priori's findings:
Despite repeating the experiment multiple times to be sure of the results, it took Priori six years to get his findings published in a scientific journal, in 1998. As he told me, "People kept telling me it can't be true, it's too easy and simple."
Finally, though, those other scientists began to focus on the findings:
One of the first researchers to take Priori's results seriously was Michael A. Nitsche, a clinical neurophysiologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany. "There were two lines of criticism that I heard in those days," Nitsche said. "One line was that it couldn't work, because it's a very weak stimulation and it couldn't get through the cranium. The other was that it should be very dangerous." [But in] . . . a paper published in 2000, Nitsche showed that the stimulating influence of tDCS lasts for at least five minutes after the electricity stops flowing [and with no harm done to scalp or brain].
Since then, there has been an overwhelming current of confirming results, including data showing enhancement not only of reaction time but also of various cognitive functions. But how can such a tiny jolt of electricity to the scalp for a few minutes improve our thinking? Hurley asked Roy Hoshi Hamilton, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation. Hamilton began with a question:
"What is a thought? . . . A thought is what happens when some pattern of firing of neurons has happened in your brain. So if you have a technology that makes it ever so slightly easier for lots and lots of these neurons, these fundamental building blocks of cognition, to be active, to do their thing, then it doesn't seem so far-fetched that such a technology, be it ever so humble, would have an effect on cognition . . . . There's this mantra in neuroscience, coined by Donald Hebb: Neurons that fire together wire together. So I have this tool that makes it more or less likely your neurons will fire. Now, while I'm applying the current, I'm going to have you engage in some behavior, a working-memory task, say, or attempting to name objects even though you have aphasia following a stroke, which is my area of interest. So now that network of neurons is being activated in an environment that slightly nudges it, makes it slightly easier for the neurons to fire and the behaviors to be successfully carried out. Then it's not too far-fetched that, when that happens over and over again, during weeks of practice, those pathways will be reinforced."
That sounds plausible, so I might need to get myself one of those thinking caps and learn to 'cerebrate' the body electric . . .

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At 4:24 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I like this idea, but suffice it to say that given a choice, I would prefer to find a tin-foil cap in my stocking this Christmas.

At 5:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Better post that letter to Santa!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:14 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Well, I don't want to to push things. I was thinking Santa might already think I'm on shaky ground asking him for one of his helpers; specifically, a 5'6" 36-21-36 redhead, ahem, elf-gal. But asking for both an elf-gal and a tin-foil hat? No, I don't think Santa would go for it!

At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've performed some experimentin' myself with AC (once) and my advice for all those tinkerers would be to stick with DC.

Admittedly my experiment wasn't planned out so well but so far as "excitin' neurons" and "promptin' behaviors" goes I'd attest to that too. And I'd reckon stickin' with current in the mA range'd be better than 20A/277V - however I don't know a merest few milliamps could fire off enough of a neuronal sequence to motivate a test subject to jump off a 12 foot step ladder.


At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought to add. It helped elevate the learning curve for doggone certain. And that'd be of the "long-term memory" too.

Oh. That (once) I mentioned twern't exactly accurate. Tho' I never repeated the second experiment a second time neither.

One sweaty July day I skipped the step of grabbing my needle-nose pliers and just reached in with a bare hand to pull a neutral from the bus which some miscreant had installed very proximate to the blue phase in a 600A panel.

Fortunately the back of my hand was what contacted the blue phase rather than my palm. I seem to recall a flash then the next thing I remember was sitting on my butt about 10 feet away and my apprentice saying something like "Boss? Didn't you mention to me on my first day something like, 'never stick a body-part' into a hot panel?"

That experiment's lesson - which I didn't however forget was - with electricity, don't take shortcuts.


At 8:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, go for the elf girl -- you can make your own cap!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, just hearing that teaches me a lesson!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, puts a new spin on the phrase, "Let me put on my thinking cap." On a more serious note, is this a possible aid to the elderly, such as my Mom, whose memory and cognitive abilities are starting to slip a bit? It would be interesting to see studies using this on those with moderate dementia or even early onset of Alzheimers.


At 5:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Possibly, Jay, for the article says that work is being done with Parkinson's, which is similar to Alzheimer's (and the article might have mentioned this, too).

Jeffery Hodges

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