Category: brain stimulation

Scientists Just Used Brain Stimulation to Literally Change How People Think

Hitting the Right Lobes

A team of researchers from Boston University (BU) has explored the possibility of enhancing a person’s ability to learn and control their behavior — in short, to change how people think — by stimulating the brain. BU researcher Robert Reinhart used a new form of brain stimulation, called high-definition transcranial alternating current stimulation (HD-tACS), to “turbo charge” two brain regions that influence how we learn.

“If you make an error, this brain area fires. If I tell you that you make an error, it also fires. If something surprises you, it fires,” Reinhart said in a BU Research press release, referring to the medial frontal cortex, which he calls the “alarm bell of the brain.”

A scan of a brain involved in the study shows how brain stimulation lights up the medial frontal cortex and prefrontal cortex, both involved in how people learn.
The brain’s right hemisphere was more involved in changing behavior. Image credit: Robert Reinhart/Boston University

Reinhart and his colleagues found that stimulating this region, as well as the lateral prefrontal cortex, could change how a person learns. “These are maybe the two most fundamental brain areas involved with executive function and self-control,” he added.

In a study published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Reinhart’s team described how applying electrical stimulation using HD-tACS quickly and reversibly increased or decreased a healthy person’s executive function, which led to a change in behavior.

Smart Charge

Reinhart’s team tested 30 healthy people, each wearing a soft cap with electrodes that conveyed the stimulation. The test was simple: each subject had to press a button every 1.7 seconds. In the first three rounds of tests, the researchers either cranked up the synchronicity between the two lobes, disrupted it, or did nothing.

The participants’ brain activity, monitored with an electroencephalogram (EEG), showed statistically significant results. When the brain waves were upped, the subjects learned faster and made fewer mistakes, which they corrected abruptly. When it was disrupted, they made more errors and learned more slowly. 

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What was even more surprising was when 30 new participants took an adjusted version of the test. This group started with their brain activity temporarily disrupted, but then received stimulation in the middle of the activity. The participants quickly recovered their original brain synchronicity levels and learning behavior. “We were shocked by the results and how quickly the effects of the stimulation could be reversed,” says Reinhart.

Although their study still leaves much to learn, the BU team was actually the first to identify and test how the millions of cells in the medial frontal cortex and the lateral prefrontal cortex communicate with each other through low frequency brain waves. “The science is much stronger, much more precise than what’s been done earlier,” said David Somers, a BU brain sciences and psychology professor who wasn’t part of the study.

The bigger question, Somers noted, is how far a person can go with such a technology. Who doesn’t want to have their brain performance enhanced? This could produce the same effects as nootropics or smart drugs, but with fewer potential side effects, as the brain is stimulated directly. Having access to such a technology could be a game changer — but just as with smart drugs, there’s the question of who should have access to such a technology.

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New Research Uses “Brain Stimulation” to Influence an Individual’s Honesty

Honesty Is Key

Isaac Newton once said, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity,” but the biological basis for honesty isn’t that simple and remains poorly understood. That’s changing thanks to a study by researchers from the University of Zurich (UZH) working with colleagues from Chicago and Boston.

They’ve demonstrated the possibility of controlling honest behavior using a non-invasive form of brain stimulation. Their research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pinpoints a deliberation process between telling the truth and self-interest in the brain’s right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC).

The researchers arrived at their conclusion using a die-rolling experiment in which participants could increase their earnings by cheating. About 8 percent of the participants cheated whenever they could to maximize their profits, but many others opted to tell the truth at times and cheat at other times. “Most people seem to weigh motives of self-interest against honesty on a case-by-case basis; they cheat a little but not on every possible occasion,” said Michel Maréchal, an Experimental Economics professor at UZH.

*4* Brain Stimulation Creates a “Truth Serum” Effect

The researchers then applied their “truth serum” to the experiment. Rather than a drug like you’d see in a spy movie, they used a non-invasive transcranial direct current stimulation over a region of the rDLPFC. This causes brain cells to be more active by making them more sensitive. After it was applied, the sometimes cheaters were less likely to cheat — the consistent cheaters remained, well, consistent.

“This finding suggests that the stimulation mainly reduced cheating in participants who actually experienced a moral conflict, but did not influence the decision making process in those who were committed to maximizing their earnings,” UZH Professor of Neuroeconomics Christian Ruff pointed out.

Getting the Truth Out

In most situations, getting the truth out is important. After all, isn’t an honest people the foundation of a good society? The UZH research sheds light on the brain processes involved in telling the truth. “These brain processes could lie at the heart of individual differences and possibly pathologies of honest behavior,” Ruff explained.

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Maréchal put it more bluntly: “If breaches of honesty indeed represent an organic condition, our results question to what extent people can be made fully liable for their wrongdoings.” It’s necessary to understand the extent of how biological predispositions affect honest behavior. The researchers, curiously enough, found that their brain stimulation method only affected honesty in situations that weighed moral motives against material ones, i.e., telling the truth vis-a-vis increasing earnings.

While the researchers didn’t really highlight more practical applications for this brain stimulation technique, there are potential uses for it. Perhaps it could improve existing lie-detection technologies, or it could be used in legally questioning persons of interest in criminal cases. Maybe. The point is, it now seems possible to “force” the truth out of a person in certain situations, which is itself a truth worth mulling over.

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