U.S. Military Tests Brain Stimulation to Sharpen Mental Skills

Could electrodes one day replace pill bottles in the theatre of war?

Air Force Pilot
A U.S. Air Force pilot performs a pre-flight check. Perhaps one day, connecting electrodes to the scalp could be part of that routine. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Philip Bryant - Flickr/Creative Commons

What if you could improve your mental skills with a simple jolt of electricity? If it sounds like a scenario out of your favorite dystopian TV sci-fi show du jour, think again. As Ian Sample reports for The Guardian, the days of brain-enhancing machines could be upon us with the announcement that the U.S. military has successfully used electronic brain stimulators to up its staff’s mental skills. 

In an attempt to improve the multitasking and cognitive skills of members of the U.S. Air Force, researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio tested a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. They published the results of their work in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. tDCS is a painless form of non-invasive brain stimulation originally developed to treat psychiatric conditions like Parkinson’s and depression. In this case, however, it was put to the test on 20 Air Force members to improve the ways in which they process information while multitasking. 

During the trial, the subjects were separated into two groups. Both were hooked up to kits with five electrodes, but only one group’s kits continued brain stimulation for longer than 30 seconds at the beginning of the test. The electrodes deliver low-level electronic currents directly into the brain’s cortex in pulses that are thought to cause neurons to fire. 

The electrode-connected subjects were then given an Air Force-specific version of the Multi-Attribute Test Battery, which was developed by NASA to evaluate people’s ability to do multiple things at a time in an environment similar to conditions experienced while in flight. They had to turn lights on and off, alter the channel and frequency of a hypothetical communications unit, target a cursor and manage resources all at the same time. 

Within just four minutes, the people with ongoing stimulation were doing better on the test, and they performed better overall. The researchers noted a “significant” improvement in information processing in the subjects who got ongoing brain stimulation, and they concluded that the technology “has the ability to augment and enhance multitasking capability in a human operator.” 

Does that mean that soon, members of the military will all be walking around with electrodes taped to their heads? Not exactly, says Sample. Despite other tests that tDCS works better than caffeine at keeping military subjects awake and functional for long periods of time, he reports, the technology is still unregulated and young. The researchers agree. For example, though they expected that the subjects who got real brain stimulation would have more working memory—the part of short-term memory that’s available for immediate use and calling up important, relevant information—they didn’t. The team concluded that further research is needed to find out just how long the tDCS technology’s impact on multitasking can be seen. 

If further research is conducted, though, it could one day change the way the military ensures its personnel stay sharp under extreme conditions. As William Saletan reports for Slate, much of the research on modafinil or Provigil, a so-called “smart drug” that is currently used to treat narcolepsy or shift work sleep disorder, is funded by the military in the hopes of helping soldiers stay up and alert for longer periods of time. Amphetamines have a particularly long history in the U.S. Armed Forces—not only did the drugs help Vietnam War soldiers handle long periods of combat, but Saletan notes that some forms of amphetamine are currently allowed in all four branches of the military. 

Is direct brain stimulation really better than ingesting drugs that, like modafinil, can be habit-forming and have serious and even fatal side effects? The jury’s still out. But one day, perhaps, soldiers will be just as likely to reach for brain stimulators as pill bottles before they head out to the field.  

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