The old saying ‘get your thinking cap on’ may not be too far off the mark. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, have found that a person’s ability to learn can be enhanced by wearing headgear that sends mild electrical current to the brain.
After undergoing 20 minutes of transcranial stimulation, participants were given a learning task that involved determining which buttons on a game controller matched specific colours. Researchers noticed that subjects made fewer mistakes and learned from their errors faster than without electrical current passing through their brain.
One of the study’s co-authors, Geoffrey Woodman, said the effect was plain to see on the electroencephalogram, with "a success rate far better than that observed in studies of pharmaceuticals or other types of psychological therapy".
His colleague Robert Reinhart, who lead the study, said: “What we found, which is so exciting, is that when we up-regulate this specific brain activity we can make volunteers more accurate when performing a task, more judicious, cautious, less daring. So they make a mistake and then how they respond after the mistake is actually slower and more accurate.”
The cap used to send electricity to the brain is a conventional implement normally used for EEGs, tests which use an electronic monitoring device to measure electrical activity in the brain.
“It just feels like a small itching or tingling sensation, and it is very small and doesn’t hurt. It looks a lot more intense than it actually is,” said clinical trial participant Laura McClenahan.
The implications of the findings extend beyond the potential to improve learning; it is thought it could also have clinical benefits in the treatment of conditions like schizophrenia or ADHD.