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: cat, bed, car 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.