How tACS Brain Stimulation Can Enhance Mental Function

Category Technology

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The Reinhart Lab at Boston University has been researching the use of a new brain stimulation technology called tACS. Their findings suggest that tACS can improve executive function, as well as memory and attention. This suggests that the technology could be used as a viable clinical intervention for mental health conditions in the future.

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Figuring out how to enhance a person’s mental capabilities has been of considerable interest to psychology and neuroscience researchers like me for decades. From improving attention in high-stakes environments, like air traffic management, to reviving memory in people with dementia, the ability to improve cognitive function can have far-reaching consequences. New research suggests that brain stimulation could help achieve the goal of boosting mental function.

tACS stands for transcranial alternating current stimulation

In the Reinhart Lab at Boston University, my colleagues and I have been examining the effects of an emerging brain stimulation technology – transcranial alternating current stimulation, or tACS – on different mental functions in patients and healthy people. During this procedure, people wear an elastic cap embedded with electrodes that deliver weak electrical currents oscillating at specific frequencies to their scalp. By applying these controlled currents to specific brain regions, it is possible to alter brain activity by nudging neurons to fire rhythmically.

The technique involves using electrical currents from a device to stimulate particular brain regions

Why would rhythmically firing neurons be beneficial? Research suggests that brain cells communicate effectively when they coordinate the rhythm of their firing. Critically, these rhythmic patterns of brain activity show marked abnormalities during neuropsychiatric illnesses. The purpose of tACS is to externally induce rhythmic brain activity that promotes healthy mental function, particularly when the brain might not be able to produce these rhythms on its own.

The technology is used to restore or strengthen brain rhythm patterns

However, tACS is a relatively new technology, and how it works is still unclear. Whether it can strengthen or revive brain rhythms to change mental function has been a topic of considerable debate in the field of brain stimulation. While some studies find evidence of changes in brain activity and mental function with tACS, others suggest that the currents typically used in people might be too weak to have a direct effect.

It has become more sophisticated and advanced over the years

When faced with conflicting data in the scientific literature, it can be helpful to conduct a type of study called a meta-analysis that quantifies how consistent the evidence is across several studies. A previous meta-analysis conducted in 2016 found promising evidence for the use of tACS in changing mental function. However, the number of studies has more than doubled since then. The design of tACS technologies has also become increasingly sophisticated.

tACS can improve the executive function of the brain

We set out to perform a new meta-analysis of studies using tACS to change mental function. To our knowledge, this work is the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis yet on this topic, consisting of over 100 published studies with a combined total of more than 2,800 human participants.

After compiling over 300 measures of mental function across all the studies, we observed consistent and immediate improvement in mental function with tACS. When we examined specific cognitive functions, such as memory and attention, we observed that tACS produced the strongest improvements in executive function, or the ability to adapt in the face of new, surprising or conflicting information. We also observed improvements in the ability to pay attention and to memorize information. Our findings demonstrate that tACS can change many different aspects of mental function in healthy people and suggests that this technology could represent a viable clinical intervention in the future.

It is a potential clinical intervention for the future

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