Friday, 23 November 2012

The Thinking cap, stimulating intelligence with a battery

The savant syndrome is a rare condition in which people with neurodevelopmental disorders, notably autism spectrum disorders and/or brain injuries.
All people with savant syndrome have an amazing memory that is very focused in one area. The most common behaviors demonstrated by people with the syndrome are obsessive preoccupations with trivia, license plate numbers, maps, or obscure items. Some people have startling artistic or musical abilities. For example, one man can hear a piano concerto only once, then play it perfectly. Other people with the syndrome have outstanding mathematical skills, such as being able to perform complex calculations within a few seconds. Some can also perform calendar calculations, meaning given any date past or future the person can tell what day of the week it is.

Australian scientists say that "switching off" parts of the brain can help people tap into hidden genius. The researchers have just completed a study of "savant syndrome", in which people with severe mental disorders can exhibit extraordinary talents in the field of art, music or mathematics.
The study found that healthy volunteers showed similar talents when parts of their brains were temporarily disabled.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a noninvasive method to cause depolarization or hyperpolarization in the neurons of the brain.The principle of inductive brain stimulation with eddy currents has been noted since the 20th century. The first successful TMS study was performed in 1985 by Anthony Barker and his colleagues in Sheffield, England.
Repetitive TMS produces longer-lasting effects which persist past the initial period of stimulation. rTMS can increase or decrease the excitability of the neurons depending on the intensity of stimulation, coil orientation and frequency.
Robyn Young is a professor of Psychology at Flinders University in southern Australia. Working with healthy volunteers, she applied strong magnetic pulses to their brains, to temporarily disable their language and social skills and mimic the symptoms of autism in 2008. With these parts of their brains briefly "switched off", Professor Young says that some volunteers were capable of "savant" abilities.

Professor Young says her findings may disappoint people who hope they've got a hidden genius for music or mathematics; it seems only a small proportion of human beings have a latent capacity for amazing feats of memory. Young also concedes that magnetic pulsing isn't necessarily the best way to find them. While the volunteers suffered no lasting effects from having parts of their brains switched off, several reported short-term memory problems the next day. But Professor Young says other methods such as mental exercises or meditation could help people to learn how to suppress some areas of the brain, so they might tap into and develop any hidden potential.
Neuroscientist Allan Snyder believes that all humans possess untapped powers of cognition, normally seen only in rare individuals called savants, and accessing them might take just a few jolts of electricity to the brain. His research (which was replicated by Robyn Young) suggests that brain stimulation improves people’s ability to solve difficult problems. But Snyder’s interpretation of his findings remains controversial, and the science of using brain stimulation to boost thinking is still in its early stages.
Using brain stimulation, he thinks it’s possible to temporarily remove that mental suppression and unlock the savant inside each of us.
Snyder’s earlier studies used magnetic, rather than electrical, stimulation to try to elicit savant abilities. One study showed a change in artistic ability, while another found improved numerosity, the ability to precisely estimate a large number of objects without counting them.
Alturnatively Dr Heidi Johansen-Berg and her team at the University of Oxford specialise in monitoring neurorehabilitation, the process in which damages to the nervous system are healed. They aim to find clues to how brain connectivity and plasticity, essential to learning, works. Showcasing their work at the British Science Festival, they described their explorations of the possibility of using non-invasive electrical stimulation to speed up the relearning of skills in stroke patients. By placing electrodes on the scalp, they could induce a current through the brain to improve the efficiency of the learning process.
Neural impulses are transmitted from one brain cell to the next when fluctuations in the electric potential of the cell membrane the cell’s voltage get large enough to surpass a threshold. When this happens, the resulting action potential is large enough to jump the gap to the next neuron, by putting into motion a series of chemical processes that excite the second brain cell.
The team’s idea was that adding more electricity to a brain region would result in more action potentials being generated. Neuroplasticity responds to the frequency and intensity of such synaptic transmissions, so the brain would be able to repair itself much more quickly. The idea worked. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), as the technique is known, was successful in improving the recovery of motor skills, although it’s not yet clear how it achieves this. What the researchers also discovered, quite unexpectedly, was that it had a similar effect on healthy controls – their speed of learning was increased, too.
Johansen-Berg is turning her attention to exploring the potential for tDCS with long-term use, as most studies have only investigated effects over minutes or hours. Other researchers, including Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, are looking at how the technique can aid problem-solving (i.e. making you more intelligent) and is hoping to develop a “thinking cap” to optimise brain function for a particular outcome.
In Johansen-Bergs trial published earlier this year 15 volunteers were taught to push a set of buttons in three different sequences, much like playing the piano. Electricity was fired into the area of their brains that governs movement  running from the front of the head to a point above their ear for 10 minutes while they completed the task.
By running the charge in one direction, researchers found they could stimulate the brain and increase the volunteers’ learning speed by 10 per cent. Sending the current the other way had the opposite effect, dulling their brain cells and making them slow down. What the study shows is that, even in young healthy people, you can speed learning through brain simulation.
On paper the idea of a 9 volt battery could simulate your brain to produce beneficial effects, on the other hand getting the wrong voltage or polarity, or even positions of the electrodes could go wrong. Its worth noting that research into intelligence stimulation seems like a process of trial and error. Perhaps further research could help with stimulation other areas of the brain. Deep brain stimulation or electrical pace makers for the brain have been known to help Parkinson's patients with movement. A similar study could test for the noninvasive tDCS in Parkinson's. The possibility of having a electro stimulated Thinking Cap may sound horrific but perhaps using it for medical reasons might not be a bad idea after all...

No comments:

Post a Comment