Don't be shocked: Electrical stimulation may help learning

Brain games, flashcards, and acronyms might have some shocking competition for memory improvement. According to a study published recently in Current Biology, stimulating the brain with targeted electrical pulses at precise times can help improve memory.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania collaborated with institutions across the United States—including Emory University, the University of Washington, Mayo Clinic, and the University of California-San Francisco—to analyze memory-performance data from 150 epilepsy patients who had electrodes implanted intracranially (that is, inside their heads).

The researchers examined whether the timing of electrical stimulation—administered during either a low- or high-functioning brain state—had an effect on how the patients performed on word-memorization tests.

On average, participants experienced a 12 to 13 percent increase in memory when stimulation occurred during low cognitive performance. "We found that jostling the system when it's in a low-functioning state can jump it to a high-functioning one," says Michael Kahana, who co-led the research team.

In comparison, when stimulation occurred during a state of high cognitive performance, Kahana says participants experienced a 15 to 20 percent drop in memory performance, on average.

Overall, the researchers found that "when memory was predicted to be poor, brain stimulation enhanced memory, and when it was predicted to be good, brain stimulation impaired memory."

Fidgeting may help improve cognitive performance, too

The concept of electrical stimulation on specific nerves—which federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) calls Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT)—works by actually making the brain more adaptive and receptive to learning.

Henk Haarmann, the technical director for cognitive neuroscience at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language, says this approach could prove particularly effective in language learning. By pairing TNT with traditional learning, Haarmann says older people might be able to pick up new languages with the same ease as young children.

Memory loss with age could be a bigger problem for men than women

The findings pose an ethical question, which scientists and researchers will need to confront going forward. Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Shannon Nakmabadi asks, "Should science be used to augment the abilities of healthy people?"

Jason Robert, an associate professor at Arizona State University, explains that enhancement technologies like TNT will end up benefitting those who are already well off—which would ultimately disadvantage those who aren't as well off.

The optimal environment for student learning

But Robert says the enhancement is more comparable to the practice of training skilled athletes at high altitudes—and argues that using an enhancement to "help an already capable person perform even better" isn't all that unique (Carey, New York Times, 4/20; Hamilton, "Shots," NPR, 4/20; Nakmabadi, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/4).

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