Research conducted at the University of Oxford has concluded that, in lab, electrical stimulus to the brain can help increase the human capacity to learn. This transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS method can improve math and language abilities along with memory, problem solving skills, attention, and movement.
TDCS uses electrodes placed on the outside of the head to pass tiny currents across regions of the brain for 20 minutes or so. The currents of 1–2 mA make it easier for neurons in these brain regions to fire. It is thought that this enhances the making and strengthening of connections involved in learning and memory.
‘This research cuts to core of humanity: the capacity to learn,’ says Professor Julian Savulescu. ‘The capacity to learn varies across people, across ages and with illness. This kind of technology enables people to get more out of the work they put into learning something.’
He adds: ‘This is a first step down the path of maximizing human potential. It is a very exciting development but we need to control the release of the genie. Although this looks like a simple external device, it acts by affecting the brain. That could have very good effects, but unpredictable side effects.’
The technique seems to boost the learning process in conjunction with standard education or training. There is no free ride here – people still need to work at learning a new skill or language themselves. ‘It won’t be possible to go to sleep at night with the electrodes on, wake up the next day and pass all your exams,’ says Roi.
It’s all ethically questionable, to be sure. But the researchers argue that the equipment is low-cost and easy to obtain. I still wouldn’t attempt hooking my own brain up while studying. At least not yet. Catalysts have been used to speed up chemical reactions for years, increase their efficacy, and decrease the amount of energy needed. Still, it’s hard to view them as comparable when you’re applying all those benefits to the human brain.