“Transcranial direct current stimulation” (tDCS) involves passing electricity through your head. The current is relatively weak, so it’s not like the electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) used to treat extreme depression in mental institutions; sometimes called “deep brain stimulation.”
tDCS introduces a much more gentle, long-lasting current that users maintain for half an hour or more. These lightweight, helmet-like rigs decrease some neurons’ resistance to firing, making brain activity energetically easier. The tech has long been under investigation by the military for its ability to improve hand-eye coordination, but new research is increasingly focusing on its potential to improve overall brain functioning.
The study made use of reaction time and vigilance tests to quantify the participants’ mental agility at various points throughout a sleepless night. By 8am, many hours past the subjects’ bed times, the differential in test scores was huge — those who had received tDCS treatment were showing an average of 60% vigilance score, while participants on caffeine or a sham tDCS control treatment came in at like 30%. More, what boost was offered by caffeine (and the placebo effect) faded much more quickly than the effects of tDCS. For just 30 minutes of brain stimulation, the tDCS group got hours of increased wakefulness — and they didn’t even have to suck down a cup of horrible science coffee for the privilege.
The study was intended to help with long shifts of manual image scrubbing — which is to say, hour after hour of staring at satellite photos to try to spot legitimate military targets. Right now, computers are less able to identify the importance of a rectangle of desert-colored canvas than a human being, so the process still requires a real brain. Surveillance drones and satellites, along with a smattering of actual human spies, are generating an incredible amount of information, with our ability to generate such data pulling far ahead of our ability to understand it.
Nobody knows exactly how a direct current to the brain manages to “prime” the neurons for easier firing, but the subjective effect is undeniable. The faculties we might need to spot a camo-covered missile launcher are not so different from those we’d use to keep combing through an assigned reading, or indeed to dominate the resource bases in a match of StarCraft 2. tDCS gets in and does directly what certain alertness drugs do indirectly: excites neurons. Could tDCS be used to treat other neurochemical disorders, like ADD? These studies could easily shed light on how to improve the performance of our fighter pilots, LoL players, LSAT takers, and high-schoolers, too.
The issue is whether a technology that decreases drowsiness in sleep deprived people can necessarily increase functioning in well rested people; in other words, tDCS seems to definitively make us less dumb, but can it also make us more smart? In terms of pure hand-eye coordination, it almost certainly can, but generalized thinking is another matter. As we see from caffeine itself, chugging a pint of coffee directly prior to a big exam is probably going to lower your score through jittery excess energy; there’s nothing to say that tDCS wouldn’t have similar emergent drawbacks in well rested people.
Then there’s the fact that this is, of course, electricity going through your brain. Plenty of commentators have pointed to the relative lack of research on the long term effects of tDCS, and while research organizations are very good about controlling the “dose,” or amount of time spent with an active current, WoW players are not known for restraint. The first time some Korean is found by his ex-girlfriend, dead, with his druid still auto-firing heals to a party and a weak current pulsing through his silent brain, tDCS will become a household name.
Photo credit: Stories by William