This week’s New Scientist reports (behind a reasonably low subscription wall) that Eric Wasserman at the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (among several other scientists) has demonstrate that a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) — essentially, running a current of 1-2 milliamps between a pair of electrodes taped to the skull — can increase neuronal firing rates and produce observable and slightly durable (in the hours range) improvements in cognitive performance in both healthy volunteers and stroke and dementia patients. The effect can be targeted at any part of the cerebral cortex by moving the electrodes.
The treatment is painless, and in fact only marginally noticeable. The requisite device is cheap, low-tech, and potentially portable, running off a 9V battery. Indeed Wasserman is quoted as claiming that “Anyone with the know-how could go to an electronics store, buy the components, and build one.”
The open — and central — research question is whether the brain builds up a tolerance, so the stimulation stops working. (The researchers claim confidence that the treatment is safe, which is puzzling if they don’t know whether it builds tolerance. Perhaps they merely mean that it’s safe for the small number of applications they’ve tried on each patient so far.)
From a clinical standpoint, this sounds like a potential breakthrough. But the big market for such devices is probably among healthy people who want a cognitive boost, even temporarily. (How much would a wannabe doctor pay to have his Broca’s area stimulated just before taking the MCAT?)
Whether the technology is electricity, magnetism, chemistry, or sensory stimulation, we’re going to learn, sooner rather than later, how to make people smarter, at least temporarily and with respect to some subset of congitive tasks. What’s scary is how unprepared our regulatory mechanisms seem to be to deal with the tricky set of questions involved. (Chemicals are much more tightly regulated than the other technologies, for no especially good reason other than history.)
The hard problems will come up around techniques that give a cognitive boost, but with undesirable side-effects, and in particular long-run health consequences. The competitive pressure to use those techniques among those competing for elite positions will be intense. The massive cheating, arbitrary rules, and moralistic posturing around “sports doping” doesn’t give me much confidence that we’re going to handle this one properly.