Brain Stimulation Enhances Motor Skill Learning
According to researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people who received a mild electrical current to a motor control area of the brain were significantly better able to learn and perform a complex motor task than those in control groups.
The study is presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research team from NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) worked in collaboration with investigators at Columbia University in New York City and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Motor skills, which are used for activities from typing and driving, to sports, require practice and learning over a prolonged period of time. During practice, the brain encodes information about how to perform the task, but even during periods of rest, the brain is still at work strengthening the memory of doing the task. This process is known as consolidation.
Subjects in this study were presented with a novel and challenging motor task, which involved squeezing a "joy stick" to play a targeting game on a computer monitor, which they practiced over five consecutive days. During practice, one group received 20 minutes of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and the other group received only a 30 second "sham" stimulation. tDCS involves mild electrical stimulation applied through surface electrodes on the head, and works by modulating the excitability, or activity, of cells in the brain's outermost layers. In this study, Dr. Cohen and his team directed tDCS to the primary motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement.
Over the five-day training period, the skill of the tDCS group improved significantly more that that of the control (sham) group, apparently through an effect on consolidation. During the three month follow-up period, the two groups forgot the skill at about the same rate, but the tDCS group continued to perform better because they had learned the skill better by the end of training.
The findings could hold promise for enhancing rehabilitation for people with traumatic brain injury, stroke and other conditions.
If stimulating the brain to improve learning sounds science-fictional, you're right. I remember this from Cities in Flight, a terrific novel of the 1950's by James Blish.
They conducted you to your couch and helped you to fit over your head a bright metal helmet which had inside it what seemed to be hundreds of tiny, extremely sharp points which bit into your scalp just enought to make you nervous, but without enough pressure to break the skin.
(Read more about the accelerated learning helmet)
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