Military personnel have had mild electric currents passed through their brains in order to improve their performance when carrying out important tasks that require high levels of attention and concentration. The technique, known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), involves placing electrodes onto the outside of the skull in order to electrically stimulate neurons in a specific part of the brain.
In a study published this week in the journal Frontiers In Human Neuroscience, researchers reveal that 20 members of the US Air Force recently took part in a trial involving tDCS, as part of an effort to improve mental performance without using prescription drugs like Ritalin.
During the 36-minute-long experiment, half of the participants received a continual 2 milliamp current to a part of the brain called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (lDLPFC), which is involved in working memory. The other half received just two minutes of stimulation prior to commencing the study.
All participants were then asked to carry out a task that tested their ability to concentrate and multitask, and required them to keep a crosshair in the center of a moving circle while at the same time monitoring other elements that appeared on the screen.
Just four minutes into the trial, those receiving tDCS began to outperform those whose lDLPFCs were not being stimulated. The researchers were particularly interested in assessing how much data participants could process by the time their performance levels plateaued, and found that this was 30 percent higher among those undergoing tDCS.
The study authors conclude that “tDCS has the ability to augment and enhance multitasking capability in a human operator.” However, despite the fact that no negative side effects have so far been observed, many neuroscientists are concerned that the technique may carry some hidden dangers, as interfering with electrical communication in one region of the brain can have repercussions for overall cognitive function.