Was there ever a time when you needed to learn something and your brain just felt too foggy that day? In the near future, you might be able to get an electrical shock to the brain instead of a cup of coffee to prepare your neurons for learning.
New research from the Catholic University Medical School in Rome, Italy, has found that electrical stimulation in the brains of mice increases their memory and ability to learn.
Smarter mice with transcranial direct current stimulation
The study, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research Global and published in Scientific Reports, investigated the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on mice and evaluated the cognitive effects. The electrical stimulation is a non-invasive technique where two electrodes are placed on the scalp to deliver short low-intensity electrical pulses.
The mice were given 20 minute sessions of tDCS and then tested for memory and learning with challenges like a water maze and recognition of known and unfamililiar objects. The mice performed markedly better on tests after electrical stimulation. Furthermore, their improved ability lasted for up to one week after the brain stimulation was given, and pointed to an increase in synaptic plasticity.
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Synaptic plasticity is the strengthening and weakening of neurons depending on their activity, and is thought to be a key mechanism in the learning process. Improvement on testing wasn’t the only signs of changes in the brain, however. The researchers also found a reason for the change on a molecular level – the levels of an important protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) were increased in the animals treated by tDCS. This protein is already known to be important for the survival of neurons and regulating synaptic plasticity.
This study is the first to link tDCS to effects on neural plasticity on a molecular level.
What can transcranial direct current stimulation do for you?
The technique of tDCS is not a brand new idea, and has actually been offered for years as an experimental therapy for various psychological and neurological illnesses. These illnesses include degenerative diseases such as Parkinsons, and there has been evidence of cognitive improvement in some individuals who underwent the procedure. Adding to its appeal, the technique is non-invasive, painless, portable and inexpensive. The work on tDCS is still in its early stages, however, and is not yet FDA approved.
Interest in the current findings from the Office of Naval Research includes military related applications, such helping ease post-traumatic stress to improving the training of sailors and marines. Promising results have previously been seen in studies with tDCS in pilots in the Air Force as well.
While the military might have the best access to this short cut for improving learning, transcranial direct current stimulation could be a therapy to look for in the future. Perhaps it will become a common practice before exams or job interviews.