Neuroscientists at the University of New Mexico asked volunteers to play a video game called “DARWARS Ambush!”, developed to help train American military personnel. Half of the players received 2 milliamps of electricity to the scalp, using a device powered by a simple 9-volt battery, and they played twice as well as those receiving a much tinier jolt. The DARPA-funded study suggests direct current applied to the brain could improve learning.
This type of brain stimulation, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is controversial but could show promise for treatment of various neurological disorders and cognitive impairments _PopSci
The wide field of electromagnetic brain stimulation is likely to prove to be a fertile area of research. Because the brain itself runs on electrical currents -- with it corresponding magnetic fields -- anything that might influence or interfere with these electrical and magnetic fields are likely to influence brain activity. But many of these researchers are discovering ways to selectively augment or inhibit particular parts of the brain, reversibly. Being able to do that safely provides an incredibly powerful research tool.
The technique, which has roots in research done more than two centuries ago, is experiencing something of a revival. Clark and others see tDCS as a way to tease apart the mechanisms of learning and cognition. As the technique is refined, researchers could, with the flick of a switch, amplify or mute activity in many areas of the brain and watch what happens behaviourally. The field is "going to explode very soon and give us all sorts of new information and new questions", says Clark. And as with some other interventions for stimulating brain activity, such as high-powered magnets or surgically implanted electrodes, researchers are attempting to use tDCS to treat neurological conditions, including depression and stroke. But given the simplicity of building tDCS devices, one of the most important questions will be whether it is ethical to tinker with healthy minds — to improve learning and cognition, for example. The effects seen in experimental settings "are big enough that they would definitely have real-world consequences", says Martha Farah, a neuroethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. _Nature
And certainly, the techniques will not be used only in research and therapeutic situations. They will also be used by students, bankers, lawyers, salesmen, recreational mind trippers, sex fiends, and a wide range of individuals wanting to make more or less of themselves, depending upon their particular inclinations and needs.
We live in a foolish and dysfunctional world. But there is no reason why parts of the world cannot wake up and discover how to make itself more rational, prosperous, and fulfilled.