Stimulating the brain with electrical waves can ‘turbo charge’ the organ – synchronising oscillations between different regions and improving people’s performance in tasks related to learning and self control. Two brain regions – the medial frontal and lateral prefrontal cortices – control most executive function. Researchers used high-definition transcranial alternating current stimulation (HD-tACS) to synchronise oscillations between them, improving brain processing.
Robert Reinhart, assistant professor at Boston University in the US calls the medial frontal cortex the “alarm bell of the brain.” Hit a sour note on the piano and the medial frontal cortex lights up, helping you correct your mistake as fast as possible, researchers said. In healthy people, this region of the brain works hand in hand with a nearby region, the lateral prefrontal cortex, an area that stores rules and goals and also plays an important role in changing our decisions and actions.
“These are maybe the two most fundamental brain areas involved with executive function and self-control,” said Reinhart, who used HD-tACS to stimulate these two regions with electrodes placed on a participant’s scalp. Using this new technology, he found that improving the synchronisation of brain waves, or oscillations, between these two regions enhanced their communication with each other, allowing participants to perform better on laboratory tasks related to learning and self-control.
Conversely, de-synchronising or disrupting the timing of the brain waves in these regions impaired participants’ ability to learn and control their behaviour, an effect that Reinhart could quickly fix by changing how he delivered the electrical stimulation. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests that electrical stimulation can quickly – and reversibly – increase executive function in healthy people and change their behaviour.
The findings may someday lead to tools that can enhance normal brain function, possibly helping treat disorders from anxiety to autism. “We’re always looking for a link between brain activity and behaviour – it’s not enough to have just one of those things. That’s part of what makes this finding so exciting,” said David Somers, professor at Boston University. Somers likens the stimulation to a “turbo charge” for the brain.
“It’s really easy to mess things up in the brain but much harder to actually improve function,” he said.