Electro-shock Language Study

by Translation Guy on April 11, 2012

Cognitive Neuroscientists are using transcranial direct simulation as part of an instruction program to help stroke victims regain lost speech. The study is one of the first successful attempts to apply brain stimulation techniques to a clinical population.

A team led by Jenny Crinion, a speech therapist and neuroscientist of University College London, worked with stroke victims who had trouble finding the right word during conversations. Known as anomia, the condition is frustrating, leaving speakers mentally grasping for the right word in a conversation.

Crinion and her colleagues paired intense word-training instruction with brain stimulation. “In the lab and at home, participants studied 150 cards with pictures of one-syllable words of everyday objects: catbedcar and so on for a total of about 60 hours over six weeks.”

Three days a week, six volunteers came into the lab for an electro-shock technique known as transcranial direct current stimulation. Researchers set their sights on Broca’s area, that portion of the human brain associated with speech. By zapping particular portions of the brain, the technique is  thought to boost nerve cell activity. How the simulation works remains a mystery, but improvements have been dramatic. “Volunteers received the stimulation, which doesn’t seem to cause pain or any ill effects, while training on the vocabulary words. Seven volunteers received a sham treatment without stimulation.”

Everyone improved, reported Crinion, thanks to the normal word recognition training — unstimulated participants by 56% (they were studying hard, even without electro-shock) but the stimulatees improved by a whopping 92%. The effect was persistent too. Even three months out, volunteers who received the stimulation performed 82 percent better than before treatment, while unstimulated volunteers scores remained unchanged.

Not studied was whether or not the improvement will help with other verbal skills besides word recall. Some of the patients have reported general improvements in quality of life and their ability to converse.

Transcranial direct current stimulation holds great promise to restore cognitive function for language and math abilities, memory, problem solving, attention and motor skills. And the same brain-zapping techniques offer the un-brain damaged an opportunity to improve their mental skills too. “The idea of a simple, cheap and widely available device that could boost brain function sounds too good to be true,” say Oxford University ethicists.

“At this stage, we need more research to understand better the risks and benefits, in specific populations, in real life…. This kind of technology could be as important as the internet and computing. Those are external cognitive enhancements. This is basic fundamental cognitive enhancement.”

Thinking caps. I want one. But I share the concerns of ethicists should this technology fall into the wrong hands. I mean what’s the advantage in being smart if everyone else is too? I have a feeling that is probably the wrong question to ask an ethicist.

Society has wrestled with these questions for ages. Reflections by Mel Brooks, here.


  1. Doesn’t a stroke kill areas of the brain from lack of oxygen? If so, does the stimulation regenerate tissue, or does it stimulate nearby tissue to take over the task of what the damaged tissue did? Interesting.

    • Ken says:

      Mechanism is unclear, at least to me.

  2. Eventually we will all have a small chop placed in our brain and when a stroke occurs, they will “reboot” us.

  3. Joel Pesach says:

    Pretty remarkable that there is no pain involved. But, they must feel something. A little tingle perhaps?

  4. So, what I envision here is a isle at Babies R Us where you buy a crib, bedding, a monitor, and a cranial night cap that zaps our babies brains to make them smarter. Or, it might just be advertised in the back of Popular Mechanics.

    • Ken says:

      The future is bright.

  5. No more low IQ. Everyone will be a genius.

  6. Thanks for the post Ken. I am going to send this along to an old friend whose mother recently had a stroke and suffers from similar symptoms. Maybe something they can look into.

  7. Janna Klein says:

    The unstimulated participants that saw improvement must have occurred by placebo. If they worked harder, it may have been because they really believed they were getting the stimulation that was going to help and they wanted to get the max benefit.

  8. I hope that the participants that didn’t get the stimulation eventually did. If it were me I would have felt slighted if I didn’t get the opportunity to improve and others did while doing the same study.

    • Ken says:

      Interesting question. I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t.

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