Brilliant for a Day: The (REAL) Science of Brain Enhancing Stimulation

What would you give for the chance to be literally the best you could possibly be for, say, 24 hours?  If you could perform at peak levels for a full day?  Go from a novice to an expert?  Run faster, shoot straighter, think quicker.  You could be brilliant…for one full day.

Would you do it?

Still of Scarlett Johansson in Lucy.  (Photo still from IMDB, ©Universal Pictures 2014)

Still of Scarlett Johansson in Lucy. (Photo still from IMDB, ©Universal Pictures, 2014)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the functional capacity of the brain.  Thanks to movies like Lucy (based on an incorrect premise that most humans only use ten percent of our brains, which would make us all vegetables), many people are speculating about the great wonder that is the human mind.

But in spite of all that ScarJo serious-faced fiction, there actually is some truth to the speculation that our brain power could be, well, more.

Dr. Mike Weisend is a senior research scientist at the Wright State Research Institute in Beavercreek, Ohio.  He’s a neuroscientist who worked on developing something called neuroimaging-guided transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS.

Basically, it’s a device that uses electricity to stimulate your brain in all the right places.

WSRI Researcher Dr. Mike Weisend attaching his neuroimaging-guided transcranial direct current stimulation device to a test subject. (Photo by Cory MacPherson/Released)

WSRI Researcher Dr. Mike Weisend attaching his neuroimaging-guided transcranial direct current stimulation device to a test subject. (Photo by Cory MacPherson/Released)

tDCS works by passing a small current using twenty-two electrodes placed on your body (with at least one on your head).  The idea here is that, because your brain runs on electricity passing the electrical current through, the tDCS should change the way the brain works, allowing you to affect behavior.

What Dr. Weisend and his team did in particular was to (literally and figuratively) enhance that process.

“We came up with a map of the brain which showed all the brains of people who are performing at expert levels differ from the people performing at novice levels,” Dr. Weisend explains.  “Then we made a mathematical model of the head (based on a MRI) and used that mathematical model to help us position electrodes to essentially jump start the piece of the brain that would aid the transition from novice to expert.”

The possibilities of this are incredible, but that’s not to say it doesn’t come with a few (albeit reasonable) limitations.  For example, you won’t be able to plug yourself into the Matrix become an expert in Kung-Fu.

“It is not downloaded information,” Dr. Weisend says. “It’s an enhancement of your natural ability.”

Could you imagine being able to walk into the first day of cooking class and walk out a professional chef?  Or be able to go from the first day of flight school to nailing landings by the afternoon?  We could see some serious savings in the way of student loans, here.

Interestingly, brain stimulation is nothing new.  Not by a long shot.

Transcranial direct current stimulation has been around for over one hundred years.  The original basic design used direct current (DC) to stimulate areas of interest in the brain during the 1700s and 1800s.

What Dr. Weisend and his team did was invent the way tDCS is applied using their neuroimaging-guided system. They put a new steering wheel on the engine of the old-fashioned brain ship and gave it a tune-up.

Dr. Weisend and his team see both short and long term benefits to this system, some of which are more surprising (and beneficial) than you might think.

“A possible goal I hope to be able to affect in the short term is to apply this to normal control for healthy, normal people who are inhibited – by either their circumstances or employment or whatever – and enable them to perform in a way that reduces their stress, reduces their errors, and allows them to go home at night with a smile on their face.”

WSRI Researcher Dr. Mike Weisend using the neuroimaging-guided tDCS device on a test subject. (Photo by Cory MacPherson/Released)

WSRI Researcher Dr. Mike Weisend using the neuroimaging-guided tDCS device on a test subject. (Photo by Cory MacPherson/Released)

Instead of going home all stressed out and feeling like you didn’t get done what you needed to do (we’ve all been there), a quick trip to the neuroimaging-guided booth could send you home feeling encouraged and productive.  Kinda like yoga, only less stretching and more…electricity.

The first application, he tells me, is designed to support the military.  Being able to provide service members with a sense of calm and collectiveness could have more than a few benefits, and it’s something that Dr. Weisend values on a personal level.

“If there is something that I can do to make that time [e.g. deployment] less stressful and more effective, I would love to do it.”

There is a fairly well-documented phenomenon, Dr. Weisend explains, where an image analyst for the military (for example) is on the job every day, watching anything from mundane events to awful circumstances.  Then they have to jump in their car, go pick up the kids from school, go take their kids to soccer practice and be a normal, healthy human being.

That is not always the easiest transition to make.

“If we could help [service members] to be more effective in their job, either by helping them to get through more data or making the attention-paying less taxing, then I am happy to do that,” Dr. Weisend says.

The other goal, and perhaps where a large group of people stand to benefit the most, is to help folks with emotional, mental, or psychological issues to find their “normal” once again.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, in conjunction with the VA in Texas and the Women’s Hospital in Boston, are collaborating with Dr. Weisend and his team to use their tDCS system on service members who are struggling to live with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.

“The way we approach it is not just simply hoping behavior changes,” Dr. Wesiend says.  “What we do is we figure out what the most important thing to change is so that we can effect a person’s life in a positive way.  For example, people with PTSD tell me they have terribly disrupted sleep.  Traumatic brain injury sufferers may have a completely different problem. It’s like thinking of different disorders as having their own personalities.”

WSRI Researcher Dr. Mike Weisend attaches his neuroimaging-guided tDCS to a test subject. (Photo by Cory MacPherson/Released)

WSRI Researcher Dr. Mike Weisend attaches his neuroimaging-guided tDCS to a test subject. (Photo by Cory MacPherson/Released)

So let’s say you go through the (approximately) twenty-minute brain stimulation procedure.  How long will the enhanced human power last?  Dr. Weisend says right now the effects last for about 24 hours, putting a bit of a fairy tale “stroke of midnight” spin on things.  However, unlike a fairy godmother, you get more than one chance to shine.  Theoretically, this system could be implemented numerous times to the same subject and achieve equal results.

One of the most impressive and beneficial things about this technology is the ability to transport it.  Especially in the field, where on-the-go tech is sometimes a necessity.

“One of the reasons I really like tDCS over other brain stimulation methods is because it is small,” he says.  “The tDCS is basically a battery with a current control.  You could run the thing for days on your iPhone. That is how small the current is.”

Want one of these for yourself?  You’re not alone.  There is an emerging trend among the science experiment avante-guarde by way of creating and using homemade tCDS machines.  These makeshift brain stimulators may sound like a money-saving genius maker, but don’t be fooled.

“To do it yourself, tDCS is a dangerous game,” Dr. Weisend cautions.  “You have to be very careful with it.”

Dr. Weisend tells me his research doesn’t stop with neuroimaging stimulation.  He is also working on a project to measure the brain’s capacity.  That is, how capable you really are (because not everyone can be a rocket scientist).  He has plans to create a system to screen people for aptitudes using brain chemistry.  For the military, he says this could replace the ASVAB.

Consider the possibilities…

Could brilliant-boosting brain devices really be the future? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Jessica L. Tozer
 is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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3 Responses to Brilliant for a Day: The (REAL) Science of Brain Enhancing Stimulation

  1. Scott Kaiscr says:

    I definitely think the potential of such technolgy our endless Dr. Mike

  2. Krishna Chaitanya says:

    is it help mentally disabled persons??

  3. Well-Manicured Man says:

    The premise of the movie, repeatedly gotten wrong by reviewers, is that, at any given moment for normal healthy people (not high on a psychodelic drug for example), we only use a small percentage of our brain’s capacity. If you were to put an adjustable resistor (potentiometer) between a battery and a light bulb, and keep turning up the juice, eventually the bulb would burn out when it reaches its maximum capacity.

    Sure, we have the connections to use all our brain, but just like an Interstate highway system, not all at once.The human brain/mind can’t even form two thoughts at once.

    “when we are simply at rest and thinking, we may be using only 10 percent of our brains.”