Recent developments in non-invasive brain stimulation and its application in cognitive enhancement.

Published Wednesday, 16 April, 2014
Updated Monday, 15 December, 2014

Disclaimer: This is a guest blog post, the author doesn't work for the European Commission.

The title of this post probably conjures images of metallic probes and cables but there are many ways in which we can enhance cognition. Both as individuals and as a race, this is something that we humans have been doing for a very long time. All forms of information storage and transmission are cognitive enhancements that allow us to go beyond what is possible with a single brain with limited resources. Beginning with oral histories passed from generation to generation, through the written word, printing press, telegraph, radio, TV, video, all forms of analogue and digital storage, computing and of course the internet we have been enhancing our individual and collective cognitive abilities.

These technologies interact in many ways to enhance our ability to contemplate and resolve problems, but they are all external. They all allow us to either outsource cognitive tasks or interact in new or more powerful ways so that many minds can work efficiently on a single issue. But what about technologies for more direct enhancement of our individual, apparently overloaded, brains?

In a recent FET Open funded project, HIVE, we developed a new device for non-invasive brain stimulation that allows researchers to explore this question (and many others) in ways that were simply not possible with existing devices.

In simple terms what this technique does is make it more or less likely that a group of neurons fire. In effect it enhances the brain’s natural plasticity and ability to adapt, which, as you might imagine, is good for learning. Some early results are very promising for general cognitive enhancement, see Cohen Kadosh 2013 for a nice example, and we are really just getting started in terms of understanding where and how to stimulate.

Meanwhile the device has become a product, commercialised as Starstim, a wireless, multi-mode, multi-channel, trans-cranial current stimulation (tCS) system. Multi-channel means we can now stimulate several areas at once, potentially affecting functional networks, multi-mode means we can stimulate with direct, alternating or even random currents. Alternating currents for example can be used to entrain natural brain oscillations using resonance effects. There is enormous scope here for further research and many application areas such as cognitive enhancement in neuropsychiatric disorders or in dementia. Again, early days but these results are promising.

There are of course important ethical aspects to consider in this research and we, and others, are very aware of these. There is in fact an ongoing project funded by the EU (NERRI) that aims to encourage an open discussion around responsible research in cognitive enhancement and many of the researchers involved in this work actively contribute. A key point in all of this is that the technology in itself is relatively cheap and at volume could be a consumer device with all that that entails.

For our part we are optimistic about the future of these technologies and their responsible use. Depending on how it all plays out it may well bring new meaning to the term “put your thinking cap on”.