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Math Science

Scientists Overclock People's Brains 314

Posted by Soulskill
from the time-to-install-some-extra-fans dept.
arshadk writes with this excerpt from the BBC about researchers at Oxford University who found that inducing a small current in a subject's parietal lobe boosted their capacity for numerical learning: "The current could not be felt, and had no measurable effect on other brain functions. As it was turned on, the volunteers tried to learn a puzzle which involved substituting numbers for symbols. Those given the current from right to left across the parietal lobe did significantly better when given, compared to those who were given no electrical stimulation. The direction of the current was important — those given stimulation running in the opposite direction, left to right, did markedly worse at these puzzles than those given no current, with their ability matching that of an average six-year-old. The effects were not short-lived, either. When the volunteers whose performance improved was re-tested six months later, the benefits appear to have persisted. There was no wider effect on general maths ability in either group, just on the ability to complete the puzzles learned as the current was applied."
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Scientists Overclock People's Brains

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  • sweet !! (Score:5, Funny)

    by ckeo (220727) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:32AM (#34136608)

    K... I just cut the cord off a lamp... somerone talk me through this O.O

  • Uhhhh.... WHAT? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:33AM (#34136624) Journal

    those given stimulation running in the opposite direction, left to right, did markedly worse at these puzzles than those given no current, with their ability matching that of an average six-year-old ... The effects were not short-lived, either. When the volunteers whose performance improved was re-tested six months later, the benefits appear to have persisted.

    What about the other sides, were the negative effects persistant? Did you just create a group of idiots? Is this legal?

    • by RockoTDF (1042780)
      Good question, but we mustn't assume that reversing the direction was a persistent underclock. Brain plasticity isn't linear. Regardless, I would like to know.
    • Re:Uhhhh.... WHAT? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jeffmeden (135043) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:38AM (#34136712) Homepage Journal

      The effect seemed to influence the learning process... IE when the current is applied in the correct direction the learning process takes place very quickly and when in the opposite direction it takes place very slowly. The subjects retested later showed they retained the learned skill, not the *ability* to learn that was afforded by the electrical stimulation.

      Of course, lacking any such mental enhancement my interpretation of this may be totally wrong.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      I was about to ask the same question. This is a huge side effect. "Don't worry, it will not affect any other parts of your brain. You will just be a retard and unable to resolve simple puzzles for at least... we don't know yet. You'll tell us !"
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Ryanrule (1657199)
      well, is it legal for stupid, ignorant people to have kids?
    • You should have quoted the next sentence, too:

      There was no wider effect on general maths ability in either group, just on the ability to complete the puzzles learned as the current was applied

      i.e. nobody was made dumber (or smarter), it only influenced the learning process while the current was active.

    • by srmalloy (263556)

      What about the other sides, were the negative effects persistant? Did you just create a group of idiots? Is this legal?

      The sense I got from the articles, as well as the last sentence of the posting blurb, is that the increased or decreased function was with regard to the particular problem(s) that they were attempting to solve while the current was being applied, not to their general capacity to solve math problems.

      It does lead me to wonder, though, how quickly we'll see some entrepreneur out for a quick buck to turn out a "thinking cap" that has the electronics to provide the proper stimulation to the parietal area and mar

    • Did you just create a group of idiots?

      pretty sure that people who offered to let scientists run current through their brains as part of a test to see how it affects learning aren't Nobel prize winners to begin with....
    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      What about the other sides, were the negative effects persistant? Did you just create a group of idiots? Is this legal?

      If you had read the next couple sentences you would have known that it only persisted for the puzzles they attempted to learn.

      In other words, they created a bunch of people who were very good at those particular puzzles, and a bunch of people who were very bad at them. It did not affect their overall abilities at all.

    • those given stimulation running in the opposite direction, left to right, did markedly worse at these puzzles than those given no current, with their ability matching that of an average six-year-old ... The effects were not short-lived, either. When the volunteers whose performance improved was re-tested six months later, the benefits appear to have persisted.

      What about the other sides, were the negative effects persistant? Did you just create a group of idiots? Is this legal?

      "When the volunteers whose performance improved was re-tested six months later, the benefits appear to have persisted. There was no wider effect on general maths ability in either group, just on the ability to complete the puzzles learned as the current was applied."

      It only applies to the skill learned at that time but, yes, presumably they will permanently suck at that skill. And, yes, they might have the right to sue since their brains were potentially permanently damaged.

    • by mcrbids (148650)

      The way I interpret this terse language is that the stuff they learned (or didn't) persisted, not continued ability (or inability) to learn!

      Yes, it would be problematic to permanently impair somebody's ability to learn by the proximity to electricity, though that might explain lots of recent politics...

  • So basically... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:35AM (#34136654)

    So basically we're FPGAs?

  • But I have accidentally OC'ed my PC and gotten a BSOD. What happens to humans when you do that?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by javelin682 (793007)
      you don't get the BSO part, you just get D
      • Some say you see a white light, probably high intensity LED arrays... you could say it's the WLOD. Sorry, I'm too excited about the possibilities of three 9v batteries, some copper leads to a skin-patch connector, and my sweet, sweet new high score on Puyo Pop! I'll be getting 10 simultaneous Puyos fo sho!!1! Or, a badly burnt section of hairless skin on the back of my head... :( Wait, was it negative lead on the left, or right hemisphere?

      • by Yvan256 (722131)

        I've heard that some get the WLOD.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by KingSkippus (799657)
      You get a Blue Scream of Death.
    • But I have accidentally OC'ed my PC and gotten a BSOD. What happens to humans when you do that?

      You start agreeing with Rush Limbaugh / Shawn Hannity / Al Gore / Bill Maher. (Take your pick, according to your personal preference, and whom you wish to demonize...)

    • by mehrotra.akash (1539473) on Friday November 05, 2010 @12:22PM (#34137476)
      How do you accidently overclock a PC??
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by steelfood (895457)

        Cut one of the plugs from the power supply and run a current from right to left through the CPU?

  • by Pojut (1027544) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:37AM (#34136690) Homepage

    Back when I worked as a mechanic, the guy that owned the place and a buddy of his used to bring cars into the shop after hours, snort up a line of blow, and go to town. I once watched them pull a motor out of a Honda Civic in 15 minutes, surgeon style (one guy giving and taking tools/nuts/bolts, one guy using the tools to remove said nuts/bolts).

    No exaggeration. 15 minutes. It transcended bitchin'.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:50AM (#34136936)

      15 minutes for a Honda Civic? What is so hard about cutting a couple of zip-ties?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by HeckRuler (1369601)
      I'm sorry, could you give that to me as a car analogy?
      er...
    • by geekoid (135745)

      I've seen it happen at race tracks, and other event. 15 minutes require coordination and skill, but it's not unheard of.

      I can put a computer together in under 5 minutes. Which seems fast to put who don't do it regularly.

      • by Pojut (1027544)

        I've seen it happen at race tracks, and other event. 15 minutes require coordination and skill, but it's not unheard of.

        yeah, but on race tracks they have more than two people working on the car at a time :p

      • by quacking duck (607555) on Friday November 05, 2010 @01:29PM (#34138700)

        Reminds me of a Top Gear episode where they discovered that changing out an engine of a car took less time than a group of women getting ready to go out for the evening.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I once watched them pull a motor out of a Honda Civic in 15 minutes, surgeon style (one guy giving and taking tools/nuts/bolts, one guy using the tools to remove said nuts/bolts).

      No exaggeration. 15 minutes. It transcended bitchin'.

      Aside from the illegal drugs in your story, did you ever think that maybe what happens in surgery is just the most efficient method of doing things? When you don't need to fumble for your instruments, you generally can do things more than at 2x the speed thanks to not having to switch your focus from your job.

      If all you remove and install a given engine a few times, you get to the point where you know all the steps and know all the tools that you'll need. Even better if the helper knows the steps too. This

  • so many questions (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cindyann (1916572) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:38AM (#34136720)

    Any observation or correlation to right-brained, i.e. left-handedness?

    How did the subjects perform with a slightly higher current?

    And when they cranked it to 11?

    • by RockoTDF (1042780)
      They only ran right handed subjects. This is common as a way to make sure lefties don't wash out the effects in your data.
  • Is this really "overclocking"? If I have an 8bit processor and I try to do the same number of things, at the same clock rate, as a 16bit processor, of course it's going to take longer. It seems more reasonable that the increased current had some effect on parallel processing and memory function/bandwidth than on speed of molecular reactions.
    • by RockoTDF (1042780)
      And what do you think mediates parallel processing? The change in activity caused by this current likely affects gene expression and a variety of other chemical reactions going on. You can't have plasticity without chemical change.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      No. In fact, it's neither.

      The more I read about neurology, them more I hate the computer/brain comparison.

  • by lazlo (15906) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:41AM (#34136772) Homepage

    The findings are reported in the journal Current Biology.

    Awesome pun.

  • I remember experimenting with pulsed currents to generate phosphenes after reading a related SciAm article sometime in the 1980's. Set up a simple 555 pulse generator, use cotton pads with saline as contacts on your temples, and you can get some pretty cool light shows before it starts to tickle too much.

    If this really is cutaneous stimulation, I'm perfectly comfortable building small current-limited supplies, and coming up with something that'll make good contact. I'm a little nervous about applying prol

  • That's why the diode [xkcd.org] worked!

  • If the effect was only with the puzzles learned when the current was applied this sounds like plain ol' conditioning and the "over clock" comment isn't even slightly related (wow, bad science reporting. Who would guess it?).

    On the other hand there are effects I can vaguely re-call from my abnormal psych class where one hemisphere of the parietal robe is inhibitory and the other excitatory, and disrupting this balance can change the resulting behaviour (one example I have in my notebook is that asymmetry in

    • by RockoTDF (1042780)
      I was about to roll my eyes until you made the math phobia suggestion. Read up a bit more on it an email the authors, it might be worth asking them to rule out somehow. I don't think this has anything to do with conditioning, however.
  • Pretty soon the Chess Federation and other intellectual competitions will have to start testing people for brain tampering.

  • Now I can finally finish a New York Times crossword. Just hit me up with some of that sweet juice first.
  • Yeah, that's fucking awesome, but mostly because it's simply applying DC to the outside of people's skulls and without having to resort to skull-fuckery.
    But when I first read the title, my knee-jerk reaction was: oh, so they discovered caffeine?
  • Fu Manchu: I had no idea that mere domestic power could be so stimulating.

  • If you read the work carefully, the smallest p-value for a stimulation-associated change is p = .03. That means there's a 1-in-30 chance that random noise in their results just happened to show an effect as strong as they actually observed. I commend the authors for being upfront with their p values; thanks for reporting them.

    Without being a total naysayer, I'd still be cautious about swallowing these results wholeheartedly before independent confirmation. I don't suspect there was any experimental shena

  • I love that this electrifying study was published in *Current Biology*.

  • by wjwlsn (94460) on Friday November 05, 2010 @07:25PM (#34143110) Journal

    So pushing the current from right to left improved mathematical learning, while the opposite direction hindered it. Is there anything that would be improved by the left to right current? Is this whole phenomenon an example of brain lateralization? This little wikipedia excerpt on lateralization of brain function [wikipedia.org] is interesting in this light:

    Linear reasoning and language functions such as grammar and vocabulary often are lateralized to the left hemisphere of the brain. Dyscalculia is a neurological syndrome associated with damage to the left temporo-parietal junction. This syndrome is associated with poor numeric manipulation, poor mental arithmetic skill, and the inability to either understand or apply mathematical concepts.

    In contrast, prosodic language functions, such as intonation and accentuation, often are lateralized to the right hemisphere of the brain. The processing of visual and audiological stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception, and artistic ability seem to be functions of the right hemisphere.

    There is some evidence that the right hemisphere is more involved in processing novel situations, while the left hemisphere is most involved when routine or well rehearsed processing is called for.

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