STIMULATING the brain with tiny electric shocks can boost people’s learning and memory ability, research has found.
Scientists believe that passing small electric currents through certain parts of the brain can lead to increased academic performance.
The technique, known as Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS), has previously been used to treat cognitive impairment among stroke and brain injury patients and those with learning difficulties.
However, experts from the University of Oxford, have discovered that the technique can also help improve the abilities of healthy adults.
Researchers from the University’s Department of Experimental Psychology ran a series of experiments on healthy volunteers, testing how well they performed in mathematical, problem solving, and linguistic tasks before and after undergoing TDCS.
Electrodes were strapped to their heads to deliver small electric currents to individual parts of the brain for short bursts up to 20 minutes.
Results showed that the treatment improved subjects’ vision, decision making, problem-solving, mathematical, language, memory, and attention capabilities.
The positive effects can last up to 12 months, researchers claim.
Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, who led the research, said: “The idea is to stimulate the brain in order to make it easier to learn new information such as maths.
“What we find with adults is that the improvement is not only in maths but actually in language, attention and decision making – they not only become better for a short time, but for long periods.
“It is not a magic pill like you might find in Hollywood movies, it’s not going to make you Einstein in one day – you still need to work hard – but together with that it makes an enhancement to your performance.”
Their research, published in the journal Current Biology, also claims there are no apparent negative side effects from undergoing the treatment, if applied correctly.
Capable of being administered through portable devices worth little more than £500, the research raises questions over whether the treatment should be widely available to help improve people’s academic performance, including schoolchildren.
However, Dr Cohen Kadosh warned that as the technology is so new, there are no training or licensing rules, which could lead to poorly qualified clinicians misusing the treatment and causing brain damage to patients.
He added: “Inadequately trained clinicians might misidentify suitable sites for stimulation — an important issue as different cognitive abilities may be subserved by different brain areas at different stages across the lifespan.
“These unique features of TDCS technology raise important ethical issues for scientists, ethicists, policy-makers and the general public.
“At best, this situation could result in the exploitation of vulnerable patients or parents for financial gain; at worst, it may risk long-term damage to the brain and exacerbate the disadvantage, potentially worsening other psychological functions.”
Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said if proved safe, TDCS could be widely used to maximise people’s cognitive potential.
He said: “This could be the first step down a path to not only maximising human potential but perhaps even increasing it
“It has significant potential advantages to every human being because the capacity to learn is fundamental to our humanity.
“If some people have access to a technology and others don’t it creates inequality and in a sense that’s having an unfair advantage but this is relatively cheap and if it’s as cheap as caffeine then it should be made available to everyone.”