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Vanderbilt University researchers have found that sending mild stimulation to the brain can enhance or depress learning effects.

Leah Gonzalez
  • 25 march 2014


A Vanderbilt University team of researchers, led by psychologist and PhD candidate Robert Reinhart and assistant professor of psychology Geoffrey Woodman, has conducted a study that showed it is possible to selectively enhance or depress a person’s ability to learn by sending a mild electrical current to the brain.

Previous studies have shown that a spike of negative voltage originates from a certain part of the brain immediately after a person makes a mistake. Reinhart and Woodman wanted to explore the idea that this brain activity has an impact on learning because it allows the brain to learn from mistakes.

The key objectives of the study were to find out if it was possible to control the brain’s electrophysiological response to mistakes and whether its effect can be enhanced or depressed depending on the direction of the current applied to the brain. The researchers also wanted to find out how long the effects lasted and whether the effects can be applied to other tasks, not just learning.

An elastic headband with two electrodes were used in the experiments. One electrode was attached to the cheek and the other on top of the head. The researchers applied 20 minutes of transcranial direct current stimulation or a very mild elecrical current to the research participants. Three types of conditions were tested: a cathodal condition with the current running from the cheek to the crown of the head, an anodal condition with the current running from the crown of the head to the electrode on the cheek, or a “sham” condition where the physical tingling sensation was replicated without an actual current being applied.

After they received the electrical stimulation, the participants were given learning tasks and their brain electrical activities were measured. The researchers found out that when an anodal current was applied, participants had a significantly higher spike in brain activity and made fewer errors and learned more quickly. A cathodal current showed opposite results. The results were not noticed by the participants, but they could be seen clearly on the EEG.

The study, which
was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, can have implications beyond that of learning and can be explored further in the treatment of conditions like schizophrenia and ADHD. This type of research could also have major implications in the wearable tech industry.

Vanderbilt University

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