It still might sound a little sci-fi, but scientists and entrepreneurs are already experimenting with wearable devices that use electrical stimulation to make your brain work better in a host of intriguing ways. A little zap to the skull appears to have the potential boost everything from creativity to post-injury healing.
Zapping your way to greater creativity
Take this recent study done by a team from Georgetown University Medical Center and MedStar National Rehabilitation Network, for example. The researchers used something called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) to stimulate an area of the brain associated with creativity while they asked study subjects to complete tests of verbal creativity, such as coming up with as many associations between a set of words as possible.
"The findings of this study offer the new suggestion that giving individuals a 'zap' of electrical stimulation can enhance the brain's natural thinking cap boost in creativity," commented study co-author and Georgetown psychology professor Adam Green.
The work is still in it's early stages -- "Any effort to use electric current for stimulating the brain outside the laboratory or clinic could be dangerous and should be strongly discouraged," Green cautions -- but there are already places where the idea of electrical stimulation is being tested out in the real world.
The electrified super soldier?
Navy SEALs, for instance, are using a device called the Halo Sport to boost their mental and physical performance, Fast Company recently reported. Created by startup Halo Neuroscience, which is backed by top investors such as Andreessen Horowitz, the gizmo,"beams a flow of electrical pulses to the brain's motor cortex," Christina Farr writes.
"The result, its creators claim, is a supercharged ability to learn new skills and build physical strength--a brain primed for performance," she continues. The U.S. military is clearly intrigued, but so are other buyers. The first wave of the $750 devices released in February sold out in less than a week.
Quicker healing through electricity
The most immediately promising mainstream use for these sort of devices, however, is probably not creating super soldiers, but instead helping those with traumatic brain injuries recover faster. That was the driving force behind both the Georgetown research and another recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania which focused on improving language skills through the use of tDCS. It's the sort of work that might one day help those with more severe brain injuries.
New York Magazine's Science of Us blog published an in-depth conversation with Amy Rose Price, a graduate student in neuroscience, who participated in the UPenn research. "When I think of tDCS as a potential therapy or as a potential means for cognitive enhancement, I'm thinking of more drastic effects on behavior, such as an aphasic patient beginning to comprehend things that they previously had difficulty understanding," she explained. "These are the kinds of potential applications that will need further work to figure out."
All of this excitement for the potential of electric brain stimulation explains why so many startups are aiming to 'hack the brain.' But when it comes to individual uses, it's probably wise to close with a repeat of the warning not to get over excited by tech that's still in its early stages. "There need to be many more studies tracking the long-term effects of prolonged and repeated sessions of tDCS," Price says. Until then there isn't "enough evidence out there that healthy people should be using brain stimulation at home to achieve 'better' cognitive abilities."