Caffeine-fueled cram sessions are routine occurrences on any college campus. But what if there was a better, safer way to learn new or difficult material more quickly? What if “thinking caps” were real?
In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Vanderbilt psychologists Robert Reinhart, a Ph.D. candidate, and Geoffrey Woodman, assistant professor of psychology, show that it is possible to selectively manipulate our ability to learn through the application of a mild electrical current to the brain, and that this effect can be enhanced or depressed depending on the direction of the current.
Reinhart and Woodman set out to test several hypotheses: One, they wanted to establish that it is possible to control the brain’s electrophysiological response to mistakes, and two, that its effect could be intentionally regulated up or down depending on the direction of an electrical current applied to it. This bi-directionality had been observed before in animal studies, but not in humans. Additionally, the researchers set out to see how long the effect lasted and whether the results could be generalized to other tasks.
Using an elastic headband that secured two electrodes conducted by saline-soaked sponges to the cheek and the crown of the head, the researchers applied 20 minutes of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to each subject. In tDCS, a very mild direct current travels from the anodal electrode, through the skin, muscle, bones and brain, and out through the corresponding cathodal electrode to complete the circuit. “It’s one of the safest ways to noninvasively stimulate the brain,” Reinhart said. The current is so gentle that subjects reported only a few seconds of tingling or itching at the beginning of each stimulation session.
In each of three sessions, subjects were randomly given either an anodal (current traveling from the electrode on the crown of the head to the one on the cheek), cathodal (current traveling from cheek to crown) or a sham condition that replicated the physical tingling sensation under the electrodes without affecting the brain. The subjects were unable to tell the difference between the three conditions.
After 20 minutes of stimulation, subjects were given a learning task that involved figuring out by trial and error which buttons on a game controller corresponded to specific colors displayed on a monitor. The task was made more complicated by occasionally displaying a signal for the subject not to respond—sort of like a reverse “Simon Says.” For even more difficulty, they had less than a second to respond correctly, providing many opportunities to make errors—and, therefore, many opportunities for the medial-frontal cortex to fire.
When anodal current was applied, the spike was almost twice as large on average and was significantly higher in a majority of the individuals tested (about 75 percent of all subjects across four experiments). This was reflected in their behavior; they made fewer errors and learned from their mistakes more quickly than they did after the sham stimulus. When cathodal current was applied, the researchers observed the opposite result: The spike was significantly smaller, and the subjects made more errors and took longer to learn the task. “So when we up-regulate that process, we can make you more cautious, less error-prone, more adaptable to new or changing situations—which is pretty extraordinary,” Reinhart said.