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Frame of Mind

Some schemes to boost brainpower are too clever by half

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3:08pm, September 23, 2013
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Human beings are the ultimate malcontents. Despite our giant brains, elaborate languages and sophisticated reasoning skills, we’re not satisfied. We want to be smarter yet. In our never-ending quest for a mental edge, we turn to things like caffeine, crossword puzzles and brain-training computer games.

Sometimes, however, our reach exceeds our grasp. To feed our insatiable hunger to improve, two mechanical engineers recently teamed up to create a new product, called foc.us, that juices the prefrontal cortex with about a milliamp of electricity. Marketed to gamers, the foc.us headset promises to “overclock” the brain, a term that digital technorati use to describe a computer that has been modified to operate faster than it was designed to.

The headset — available in black or red and yours for $249 plus shipping — terminates over the forehead, where it delivers about a milliamp of electricity in 10-minute spurts. “Excite your prefrontal cortex and get the edge in online gaming,” the foc.us website promises. “Make your synapses fire faster.” Those vague but awesome-sounding promises must have been enough for lots of people — the device is currently sold out.

The foc.us headset mimics a nascent technology used by neuroscientists called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. This and related methods create an electrical field that influences the behavior of neurons in the brain. Although the technology is young, it has already delivered some tantalizing nuggets, both in patients and in healthy people.

Scientists are currently testing brain stimulation’s utility in speeding recovery from stroke, easing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and combating intractable depression. More relevant for the people buying foc.us, the technology has shown promise as a way to boost motor accuracy, learning and speed — skills that would delight any gamer. There are even hints that brain stimulation could improve muscle might. A study reported that tDCS made people’s pinches stronger.

But even if brain stimulation could make people smarter, faster and stronger, it doesn’t come for free. In fact, researchers have also used the technology to create “virtual lesions,” temporarily disabling part of the brain.

Stimulating the wrong place could have unintended — and negative — consequences.  One study found that brain stimulation enhanced visual abilities in some ways, but this improvement came at the expense of other visual functions. The technology might work very differently on different people, too. Mood might be improved in people with depression, for instance, but dampened in healthy people.

And brain stimulation is too young to have a reliable safety record, especially when it’s used long-term by people in their living rooms. Some evidence suggests that brain stimulation can cause headaches and scalp discomfort. But then again, so can a six-hour marathon of Grand Theft Auto 5.

Like other cognitive enhancers, brain stimulation could turn out to be addictive. Data from animal studies show that under certain conditions, rodents compulsively self-administer electrical jolts to their neurons. Of course, it’s way too soon to say whether people might develop a habit, but the idea is not out of the question. A new foc.us owner posted the following on Reddit: “I’ve been using the Foc.us [sic] headset for a week now and, I can honestly say, it really does work. Maybe not as obvious the first few times using the device, but after a couple of days you can feel it not only around the stimulated area but you also get a mild body high.”

Although any new way to boost brainpower is exciting, it seems like this time the marketing has buzzed past the science. But there’s another way that scientists are attempting to boost brainpower, and it’s already nestled snug in the palms of gamers’ hands.

Video games, and the fast-paced, visually complex world they evoke, may themselves exercise the brain in very specific ways. Some scientists are using these games as ways to train the brain in tasks like attention, memory and reaction speed, particularly in certain people. A recent study found that hours of playing a specially designed car-racing video game boosted brainpower in older people, improving their working memory and attention in other ways. The same brain training didn’t help younger people, though. Another study found that hours of playing a first-person shooter game improved the vision of children born with cataracts.

While these studies are preliminary, they suggest that like any muscle in the body, the brain can be trained and improved with nothing but a little exercise. No fancy equipment required.

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