April 8 - Researchers at Vanderbilt University are developing technology that could increase the speed at which we learn. In trials, they ran mild electric current through the brains of volunteers and say the results demonstrated an increase in the rate at which they were able to learn. Ben Gruber reports.
Laura McClenahan is having a battery attached to her head. When turned on, it sends a mild electrical current through the front part of her brain. (SOUNDBITE) (English) LAURA MCCLENAHAN, VOLUNTEER, SAYING: "Not too bad actually, it just feels like a small itching or tingling sensation. And it is very small and doesn't hurt. It looks a lot more intense than it actually is." After Laura is 'plugged' in, researcher Robert Reinhart begins monitoring her brain signals as she plays video games. He's pushing and pulling current through Laura's medial frontal cortex, the part of the brain believed to control the process of learning from and responding to mistakes. And the results are measurable. An EEG clearly shows the difference in Laura's brain activity when the current is turned on. Reinhart says that by electrically stimulating this part of Laura's brain - he hopes to improve her ability to learn. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ROBERT REINHART, RESEARCHER, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "So if can control how well you monitor yourself, your thoughts, your ideas to put it broadly and it is critically involved in learning than we can have a way to non-invasively stimulate your brain and accelerate your learning." Reinhart says his point was proven in a recent trial where participants performed tasks significantly better when a charge was applied. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ROBERT REINHART, RESEARCHER, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "What we found that is so exciting is that when we up-regulate this specific brain activity we can make volunteers more accurate when performing a task, more judicious, cautious, less daring. So they make a mistake and then how they respond after the mistake is actually slower and more accurate." And Laura McClenahan shares Reinhnart's excitement. She says the process is not as shocking as it might appear. (SOUNDBITE) (English) LAURA MCCLENAHAN, VOLUNTEER, SAYING: "You know, some kids when they are younger that will take a nine volt battery and stick it to their tongue just to feel the quick tinge of electricity. It is similar to that it's just that you are getting a nine volt battery inside that apparatus and you just place it on your head. So, it's really not a big deal." But scientifically, it could become be a very big deal. Apart from accelerating learning, Reinhart says this type of treatment could lead to new options for people suffering from brain disorders like ADHD and schizophrenia, where he believes a more targeted approach to electrical therapy treatment could bring noticeably improved results.