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"Thinking Cap" -- The Discovery Files


The Discovery Files
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Psychologists at Vanderbilt University have shown that it is possible to selectively manipulate our ability to learn through the application of a mild electrical current to the brain.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Put on your thinking cap.

I'm Bob Karson with "The Discovery Files"--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

The medial-frontal cortex (call it the MFC) is the part of the brain that gives you that "oops" (Sound effect: buzzer: wrong!) response when you make a mistake. There's a spike of negative voltage that originates in the MFC just milliseconds after you make an error. Psychologists at Vanderbilt University wanted to see if it's possible to manipulate our ability to learn by applying a mild electrical current to the brain.

The subjects of the study wore a headband with one electrode atop the head and one on the cheek, and received a gentle electrical stimulus for 20 minutes--so gentle all they felt was a little tingling.

In each of three sessions, the volunteers were randomly given current that traveled from the top of the head to the cheek--cheek to top of the head--or sham that caused tingling but no effect on the brain. They were asked to perform trial and error learning tasks, with time and other pressures to increase the chance of mistakes.

Result: The researchers were able to reduce or increase the amount of mistakes and cause participants to learn more slowly or quickly--just by changing the direction of the current.

The findings may have applications in treating ADHD or schizophrenia--and I'm thinking someday helping me learn to set my digital watch.

(Sound effect: theme music)

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded in part by the government's National Science Foundation. Learn more at nsf.gov.

 
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