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Electrode therapy can ‘turbo-charge’ human brainpower, says study

Running electrical currents through the brain could treat a variety of mental conditions that don’t respond well to medications and therapy, states a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The author, Robert Reinhart, a Boston University neuroscience professor, observed noticeable improvements in brain functions in patients who underwent an electrode-based therapy called transcranial stimulation.

Transcranial stimulation involves transmitting electrical impulses to certain locations in the patient’s brain to stimulate the brain’s own neuron-to-neuron internal communications. It operates on the theory that the patient’s brain regions are not sending each other the right signals and are therefore not communicating as they should be. The electrodes’ impulses aim to modify the brain’s natural signals and restore proper region-to-region communication throughout the brain.

Reinhart tested the treatment on 90 subjects who were experiencing problems of “adaptive control”—the ability to modify one’s own actions in response to negative or unexpected feedback. He designed an electrode array that would send electric signals to areas of the subjects’ brains associated with adaptive control.

Afterward, he had the subjects complete tasks that would test their attention and reasoning. Most subjects showed measurable improvements, in some cases after just one session.

Reinhard hopes to adapt the therapy to treat other types of mental disorders. He suggested that customized electrode applications could in the future relieve symptoms of even debilitating conditions such as schizophrenia or epilepsy.

“Advances like this, in my opinion, are likely to propel the neurosciences forward as rapidly accelerating rates,” Reinhart said.

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