Scientists Discover How to Boost Brain Power By 40%

Thursday, 26 October 2017 - 10:36AM
Science News
Thursday, 26 October 2017 - 10:36AM
Scientists Discover How to Boost Brain Power By 40%
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Image Credit: YouTube
Everyone's heard it before: humans only use 10 percent of their brain power.

While that bit of faux science is patently false, a new discovery has proven how we can unlock the brain's untapped potential.

Science has long rolled its eyes at the false "10 percent" statistic, which is so pervasive in our culture it constantly appears in movies like Lucy and Limitless. (There's even an entire pseudo-science industry producing "smart drugs and cognitive enhancers" that uses that myth as its central selling point.) 

While that "fact" might be among most ridiculous we've heard in pop culture, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) researchers have actually now found a way to boost the speed of decision-making, memory retrieval, and functional learning by as much as 40 percent.

Score one point for Luc Besson, after all.

DARPA's very literal thinking cap is described as a "non-invasive" piece of headwear that is able to subtly manipulate the brain, allowing it to respond faster to stimuli than it would be able to manage by itself.

It's been initially designed to help tackle memory deterioration caused by diseases like Alzheimer's, and in a series of clinical trials has shown genuine promise at being able to help with recall.

That said, with a study like this, there's obviously a lot of caveats that need to be noted.

First, and perhaps most importantly, while this new thinking cap has been tested thoroughly, the research was conducted on macaque monkeys - their brains are fairly similar to those humans, but that doesn't ensure similar results will occur for homo sapiens. Thorough human trials will be needed before we can determine whether it'll be possible to use the cap to benefit our larger, more complex brains.

The other question is one of side effects, as for all that DARPA is eager to describe the cap as "non-invasive," it certainly doesn't sound harmless.

How exactly does the hat boost brain functions? By administering electric shocks.

Suddenly a 40 percent increase in memory recall doesn't sound all that fun.

The cap works by providing "transcranial direct current stimulation" to various parts of the brain, essentially zapping grey matter to try and coax it into moving faster. This has the desired effect - at least in macaque brains - but there's obviously some ethical challenges to electrocuting Alzheimer's patients to see if it alleviates their disease.

According to principal investigator Praveen Pilly:

Opening quote
"In this experiment, we targeted the prefrontal cortex with individualized non-invasive stimulation montages. That is the region that controls many executive functions including decision-making, cognitive control, and contextual memory retrieval. It is connected to almost all the other cortical areas of the brain, and stimulating it has widespread effects."
Closing quote

Macaques who had been zapped were 40 percent faster at learning to associate a visual clue with the possibility of a treat. It's also worth noting that while this methodology does cover learning behavior, it's also based around Pavlovian conditioning, which doesn't necessarily mean it'll be of use in a variety of situations for humans.

Still, though, if you're interested in improving your memory, and you don't mind being repeatedly electrocuted while wearing a funny hat, you may soon be able to boost your brain power by up to 40 percent.

It won't give you incredible psychic Scarlett Johansson powers, but it's better than struggling to remember your own phone number.
Science News
DARPA's New Brain Device Boosts Learning by 40%