A team of researchers from Boston
University (BU) have explored the possibility of enhancing a
person’s ability to learn and control their behavior — in short,
to change how people think — by stimulating the brain.
BU researcher Robert Reinhart used a new form of brain
stimulation, called high-definition transcranial alternating
current stimulation (HD-tACS), to “turbo charge” two brain
regions that influence how we learn.
“If you make an error, this brain area fires. If I tell you that
you make an error, it also fires. If something surprises you, it
fires,” Reinhart said in a BU Research
press release, referring to the medial frontal cortex, which
he calls the “alarm bell of the brain.”
Reinhart and his colleagues found that stimulating this region,
as well as the lateral prefrontal cortex, could change how a
person learns. “These are maybe the two most fundamental brain
areas involved with executive function and self-control,” he
In a study published in the journal of the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS),
Reinhart’s team described how applying electrical stimulation
using HD-tACS quickly and reversibly increased or decreased a
healthy person’s executive function, which led to a change in
Reinhart’s team tested 30 healthy people, each wearing a soft cap
with electrodes that conveyed the stimulation. The test was
simple: each subject had to press a button every 1.7 seconds. In
the first three rounds of tests, the researchers either cranked
up the synchronicity between the two lobes, disrupted it, or did
The participants’ brain activity, monitored with an
electroencephalogram (EEG), showed statistically significant
results. When the brain waves were upped, the subjects learned
faster and made fewer mistakes, which they corrected abruptly.
When it was disrupted, they made more errors and learned more
What was even more surprising was when 30 new participants took
an adjusted version of the test. This group started with their
brain activity temporarily disrupted, but then received
stimulation in the middle of the activity.
The participants quickly recovered their original brain
synchronicity levels and learning behavior. “We were shocked by
the results and how quickly the effects of the stimulation could
be reversed,” says Reinhart.
Although their study still leaves much to learn, the BU team was
actually the first to identify and test how the millions of cells
in the medial frontal cortex and the lateral prefrontal cortex
communicate with each other through low frequency brain waves.
“The science is much stronger, much more precise than what’s been
done earlier,” said David Somers, a BU brain sciences and
psychology professor who wasn’t part of the study.
The bigger question, Somers noted, is how far a person can go
with such a technology. Who doesn’t want to have their brain
performance enhanced? This could produce the same effects as
smart drugs, but with fewer potential side effects, as the
brain is stimulated directly. Having access to such a technology
could be a game changer — but just as with smart drugs, there’s
the question of who should have
access to such a technology.