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Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, more commonly known as tDCS is the process of applying a small electrical current across a particular region of the brain. This is usually done non-invasively via two small electrodes placed on the scalp.
Originally designed as a treatment for patients who had suffered a stroke or similar brain injury tDCS has recently gained increased public attention due its reported capability to increase human cognitive abilities in healthy people.
So whats the truth behind these claims?
For a while research has shown evidence that stimulating specific regions associated with certain mental functions can deliver a temporary improvement in using those functions. For example research carried out by Richard Chi at the University of Sydney showed that participants could double their scores on tests designed to measure visual memory and perception when the Anterior Temporal Lobes were correctly stimulated.
Similar studies have shown temporary improvements in verbal and linguistic skills, mathematical ability and motor skills.
A key development in the potential for this technology to be used to improve human performance is the delivery of lasting benefits. This is what some research is now starting to show.
Due to Neuroplasticity, the capability of the human brain to adapt to the demands placed upon it, using tDCS for a sufficient duration and sufficient magnitude of current can cause lasting changes to occur in the brain.
Studies have shown that structural changes are visible within the brain as little as five days after tDCS.
How does it work?
A common misconception with tDCS is that you can simply sit back and let the current do all the work. This just isn't true, in order to get the benefits, you have to be using the associated area of the brain at the same time as the performance enhancing stimulation is applied.
For example, research carried out by USAF at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, showed that the time needed to train pilots to pick out targets in complex radar images could be cut in half when tDCS was used. However the pilots still needed to actively interpret those radar images and pick the targets for themselves, the tDCS just made the learning process faster.
Can anyone use it?
Safety protocols have been developed that show tDCS is safe for human use, however there are a number of caveats that it is worth bearing in mind. Firstly as always if you have any kind of medical condition you should consult with your doctor before considering using tDCS. Secondly although there are companies that are now offering tDCS you can 'do at home', this is a far more risky process.The research in which real cognitive benefits have been demonstrated has all been carried out in laboratory conditions, with qualified researchers able to pinpoint the correct regions of the brain and calibrate the currents carefully. This is unlikely to be the case with a 'do it yourself' kit.
So at least for now tDCS remains an exciting development to look forward to, and an option of improving cognitive performance that we will all likely see becoming commercially available in our lifetime, but not yet a technique that can be safely, reliably and effectively used at home.
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