Hacking brain waves can give you an instant cognitive boost, says study

Artificially getting activity in certain parts of the brain to sync up can provide a small mental boost when completing tasks or recovering from mistakes, according to new research.

The technique could eventually be used as a safe and simple way to perk up the brain, as well as an option for treating those with psychiatric and neurological disorders, where these types of oscillations are often disrupted.


For the study, a new technique called high-definition transcranial alternating current stimulation (HD-tACS) was used to gently zap the brain using electrodes, with follow-up measurements taken via electroencephalogram (EEG).

The researcher from Boston University concentrated on two brain regions in particular: the medial frontal cortex, which sparks into life when you make a mistake or get surprised, and the lateral prefrontal cortex, which handles rules and goals, and helps us to change our decisions and actions.

“These are maybe the two most fundamental brain areas involved with executive function and self-control,” says Robert Reinhart, the researcher.

The large red blob shows increased synchronicity, corresponding to improvements in learning. Credit: Robert Reinhart

Previous studies have looked at the possibility that cells in these brain areas communicate with each other through the timing of their oscillations, but this latest study is the first to look at their effects in detail through the use of HD-tACS.

The study ran through three different sets of tests, each with 30 healthy volunteers asked to carry out a time estimation learning task, pressing a button when they thought 1.7 seconds had elapsed, and getting feedback on whether they’d missed the mark.


In the first set of tests, when HD-tACS was used to increase synchronicity between brain areas, the volunteers learned faster, made fewer errors, and recovered from errors more quickly.

The volunteers themselves didn’t notice any changes in their performance, but the differences were…

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