Kristin Wall
Feb 14, 2012

The ethics of electrically boosting brain power

The brain is a complex and miraculous organ with virtually limitless potential. If you’re not the world’s preeminent pianist or astrophysicist, however, you may not be realizing that potential to its fullest. To augment brain function, people turn to a multitude of cognitive function-boosting methods -- everything from holistic practices to mental exercises to diet and pharmaceuticals. But what if it were even easier? With the advent of a new ‘Electrical Thinking Cap,’ it could be.

This new brain stimulation technique, which was developed by scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Peterson Air Force Base, and employs transcranial direct-current stimulation (TDCS), is simpler than it sounds. The cap’s electric function requires nothing more than an ordinary 9-volt battery. The process involves applying weak electrical currents of about 1-2 milliamperes to the user’s scalp through electrodes. The currents pass across select regions of the brain for about twenty minutes, boosting neuron firing. These little jolts kick start the making and strengthening of connections involved in learning and memory. The technique is painless, and all indications thus far are that it’s safe, devoid of any harmful side effects, and produces long-lasting results. MRI brain scans conducted after TDCS revealed clear structural changes in neuron pathways. The fiber nerve bundles in the cerebral cortex were noticeably more robust and more highly organized after TDCS.

While this innovative thinking cap might have applications in restoring function to those with impaired mental processes, it has thus far been proven to enhance mental capacity in healthy adult brains. Clinical studies showed improved motor skills, vision, decision-making, problem solving, attention span and mathematical reasoning. Air Force scientists developed this cap from known historical electroshock methods to improve pilot concentration and cut down on training times.

Of course, when it comes to matters of the mind, one should tread carefully. Some scientists fear that repeated stimulation to one segment of the brain’s outer layer, the cortex, could worsen performance and lead to atypical brain development in children, whose brains are more susceptible to alteration. They have also expressed concerns that enhancing one cognitive function could potentially diminish performance of another. Yet, clinical studies to date have produced nothing but benefits, with no reports of seizures or other unpleasant side effects. Researchers are eager to advance clinical studies beyond healthy adults to subjects with impaired mental faculties and to children.

In addition to physical concerns, many have reacted with ethical apprehensions about the responsibility that comes with making this thinking cap available to the public. Researchers at the University of Oxford are quick to dispel any trepidation about the advantages being afforded only those who can afford it, citing the simplicity of the technology and the minimal expense of a 9-volt battery and a couple of electrodes.

Others wonder whether the thinking cap is simply a new high-tech way to cheat. Oxford scientists insist, and I agree, that it is decidedly not. Professionals drink coffee during the workday to stay alert and to activate their prefrontal lobes. Students take Adderall while studying or during exams to increase focus. Baby boomers are doing Sudoku puzzles to maintain their mental acuity. Others utilize exercise, yogic inversions, breathing techniques, acupuncture and acupressure, and myriad other methods to increase blood flow to the brain. None of these techniques could fairly be deemed cheating; each merely amplifies the body’s own inherent abilities. And indeed, why shouldn’t you be all you can be? After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Photo: Roi Cohen Kadosh, University of Oxford.