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Math Science

Scientists Overclock People's Brains 314

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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  • 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?

  • 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?

  • Re:sweet !! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:41AM (#34136762) Homepage Journal

    Working with AC may be problematic... Are you comfortable only learning something for 1/120th of a second at a time?

  • Re:Ridiculous (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 05, 2010 @11:45AM (#34136846)
    Debunked! []
  • Re:sweet !! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by u17 ( 1730558 ) on Friday November 05, 2010 @12:27PM (#34137570)

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

    You need to make sure that you're using a DC, not an AC lamp... TFA said that the direction of the current matters! If it's a DC lamp, make sure you've cut the cord past the rectifier. Then locate the ground and positive wires. Stick the positive in your left eye, making sure not to damage the eyeball, you need to carefully squeeze it in between the eyeball and the eyelid. Might need some good lubricant there. Then stick the ground similarly in your right eye. The eyes the easiest way to reach the brain, seeing as they're just an extension of the organ. With me so far? Great! If you're still alive, try to focus on multiplying big numbers. If either of your eyes pops out due to the effort, make sure to hold the wire terminal in to prevent it from disconnecting. Once you smell burning tissue, it means your result is ready! Now call an ambulance IMMEDIATELY and don't forget to write down your result, your family might need it as proof for the life insurance company that your death wasn't suicide, in fact it was a scientific endeavour. Good luck!

  • by Eevee ( 535658 ) on Friday November 05, 2010 @01:39PM (#34138866)

    I mean, some people run 10 miles or more a day; surely that can't be normal...

    Actually, humans are evolved for just that--persistence hunting [] is basically constantly running after an animal until it's too exhausted to get away.

  • Re:Uhhhh.... WHAT? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 05, 2010 @02:24PM (#34139552)

    So can this be made into a portable device? maybe a hat?

    Can it be powered by lemons?

  • Associative area (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DrYak ( 748999 ) on Friday November 05, 2010 @02:50PM (#34139952) Homepage

    Parietal arae are associative area (they don't directly process sense, they do very high-order associate/combination/processing).

    With lots of broad simplification : By applying a so low current, nothing dirrectly happens in the brain. Only one side gets a slightly more positive potential, the other slightly more negative compared to the normal potential in a "normal" brain. No impulse are caused per se. So no spasms, no feeling, no whatever. But the slighlty altered electric potential can make neurons slightly more likely to fire up a potential on their own. If they get the electrode polarity correctly with regarding to the dominant region, the neurons might be slightly more likely to be a bit more active.

    Again, while over-simplifying : The brain "learns" and "remembers" by selecting the most "used" or "useful" signal paths. More active zone (due to stimulation) = more neurons firing = more "paths" tested = more likely to arrive at a new useful firing sequence. (it's lie-to-childern, but you got the main idea). So stimulating the brain means more neuronnal pathways are tested and ultimately selected. Slowing down brain activity does the countrary.

    Thus by modulating slightly the activity rate of a brain region, we can modulate the "spead of learning" of this peculiar region.
    But doesn't leaves any permanent effect beside having learnt what one has learnt.
    (After the test, activity goes back to normal. Only newer pathways which where positively selected are retained).

    This only improved their learning, pattern recognition, or maybe their "comparative/sorting" abilities.
    While the latter(ordering symbols) is sort of useful for math, this didn't show the subjects could add up the cost of a meal and figure the tip any better than before, let alone learn calculus.

    Well because that's what these associative regions are for. Complex abstract pattern *recognition*. So good for these exercises.
    Calculus could also require also advanced planning which would proceed in a completely different region (parts of the frontal cortex), etc.

    The global mechanisme is known for quite some time, I remember several years ago about magnetic stimulation of the motor cortex slightly helping the first step of learning to play the piano (which is a complicated process in itself, requiring much more than basic motor skills. so the method did only slighly help the first stages).

    Can these type of methods be used to make Matrix-style "download kung-fu knowledge straigh into the brain" training possible ? No.
    But they could be used to give slightly nudges and help speed up some general aspects of a learned skill. (Just the same way a sport practitionner could do balance or coordination exercices to help these aspects in order to perfect her/his craft).

  • Re:sweet !! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Friday November 05, 2010 @04:59PM (#34141756) Journal

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

    DISCLAIMER: I've run tDCS experiments in an academic setting before. The info provided below is merely for speculative/educational purposes, and if someone fries their brain it's not my fault.

    It's actually surprising how simple the setup for a tDCS experiment is. All you need are some sponge elecrodes, some saline to soak them in, and a way to deliver a constant current (say, 1 mA). Sponge electrodes can be purchased online [], or they could potentially be made at home. I'm not sure what size electrode they used in the experiment, but I imagine 2"x2" would work.

    Sponges should be soaked in enough saline to transmit electricity with little resistance (resistance tends to result in uncomfortable heat), but not so wet that water is dripping down. An elastic headband is handy for keeping the sponges in place.

    The device used in lab was a fairly inexpensive (by research/medical standards) iontophoresis drug delivery device [], powered by an off-the-shelf 9V battery. I think those are only available to practitioners, but I imagine that all you really need is a simple (ideally battery-powered for safety) current source which can send 1mA through the electrodes. (again, don't have access to the paper, so don't know if 1mA is what they used)

    One sponge would go over one of the parietal cortices, on the back-top-right or back-top-left of the head. The other sponge would go over either the opposite parietal cortex or a "neutral" location like the vertex on top of the head. tDCS has a fairly crude spatial resolution, so one doesn't have to worry about being precisely pinpointed over a particular brain region.

    I'll add in a disclaimer again that the above is quite possibly entirely wrong, and it's quite possible I've made a mistake in my description, I'm not liable, etc. etc.

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -- James Bryant Conant