Can you shock your brain into performing better? Maybe.
The Boston Globe reports that the US military is exploring passing mild electrical current through the brain as a replacement for soldiers' coffee and energy drinks, especially during long stretches of mind-numbing drone surveillance or data monitoring. Over the last few years, researchers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base have been at the forefront of the project, conducting tests that give healthy volunteers electrical stimulation treatments that are currently used to alleviate depression and other conditions. In one test, subjects were kept awake for 30 hours, staying alert with either caffene, electrical stimulation, or nothing.
Biomedical engineer Andy McKinley tells the Globe that subjects given stimulation in the test performed twice as well at the end of the period than those who had received nothing, while caffeine had "tanked." Another study, published last year, tested how well participants performed when asked to search and identify targets. In some scenarios, those who received electrical stimulation were better able to learn and complete the tasks, although the exact effects were far from clear.
Use on healthy subjects is still a new field
Lindsey McIntire, one of the researchers involved, said that stimulation avoided the jitters and other side effects caffeine can produce. That's still not necessarily comforting to people whose image of electrical therapy comes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The current, however, is drastically lower than early shock treatments, and it's carefully released into certain areas of the brain. Subjects have described it as a mild tingling or burning sensation. But like many psychiatric treatments, it's still imprecise, and it's rarely been used on healthy subjects, especially for long periods of time.
Right now, researchers don't plan to apply the technology outside military use. But the idea of jump-starting your brain with electrical stimulation has already caught on in many places. Defense research wing DARPA has already tested using it to speed up training and improve alertness, and the idea of shocking yourself smart has proven irresistible to DIY body hackers. For everybody else, though, it's probably no substitute for your morning coffee.