The University of Alabama

Stimulate My Brain

By David Miller
Photos by Zach Riggins

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A pair of UA professors are looking for links among low-current brain stimulation, specific brain cortexes and academic performance.

For every day one has entered a classroom or office and aced a test or presentation, there are other days when grogginess and a lack of focus lead to poor performance.

In the absence of a reliable, safe way to ensure optimal focus each day, a wall of sugar and caffeine-packed energy drinks in every convenience store have become, for some, the go-to “pick-me-up” potion.

Two education professors at The University of Alabama hope transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, can be an answer for students who struggle to learn, recall or retain information.

Drs. Rick Houser and Steve Thoma are searching for a link between low-current brain stimulation, the correct brain cortexes and academic performance. Students enrolled in a junior-level statistics class at UA serve as willing test subjects.

In the “brain lab” in UA’s Biology Building, Houser and Thoma, along with select graduate students, have given dozens of students 20 minutes of low-current stimulation – between one and two milliamps – and a set time period to complete a selected statistics problem.

The electrical currents are painless and harmless and are transmitted using a cap with different colors to represent different cortexes. Electrodes are placed strategically on the cap, which holds the electrodes in place. Finding the right combination of cortexes and milliamps to fire up neurons without hampering focus is the goal.

“There are thousands of combinations based on brain site locations, intensity of stimulation and duration of administration,” Houser says. “Consequently, there is considerable opportunity to conduct research and discover the impact of tDCS and low current brain stimulation.”

Dr. Houser, Dr. Thoma, research magazine

Houser, standing, demonstrates how brain stimulation can be administered using a cap and electrodes in this photo illustration with Thoma, his UA colleague.

Low current brain stimulation was introduced in 1949 but caught on only in the early 2000s, says Houser. Its applications were mainly designed to treat patients with neurological conditions like strokes, epilepsy and chronic depression, drug cravings and fibromyalgia. The use of tDCS to modulate behavior and enhance academic performance, particularly in math, language and reading, has recently gained momentum as technology and advances in brain sciences emerge.

“The military is using tDCS to improve concentration and effectiveness of drone operators (Navy) while the Army is using tDCS to improve the accuracy of snipers,” Houser says. “There has been only one study using tDCS and math calculations, a study done in England. The researchers used tDCS and focused on stimulating the right intraparietal sulcus (a brain region). They enhanced numerical processing which lasted for six months after administration. There have been a number of studies which have focused on other academic areas such as reading and language acquisition (enhancing verbal memory), but not so much with math.”

In preliminary research, Thoma and Houser used different locations for the electrodes and two different current settings. Early findings have shown a disparity between the voltage settings, with those receiving smaller milliamps performing the better of the two.

“It may be, when you stimulate using tDCS, you are priming the neurons,” Thoma explains. “Neurons under the cathode associated with the negative pole hinders neuronal potentiation (the strengthening of signal transmission between neurons). There’s a tipping point where the increase was outweighed by lack of focus.

Houser is hopeful he and Thoma can pinpoint the correct areas of the brain to enhance statistical calculations.

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Initially used in efforts to combat unwanted neurological conditions, brain stimulation is implemented by the military to improve performance of drone operators and snipers. More recently, researchers, like those at UA, are looking at potential academic performance implications.

“It appears that the cathodal stimulation of (a precise brain region) the left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex hinders statistical calculation, impacting selective attention, and reducing readiness of neuronal firing,” Houser says. “Consistent with other findings, cognitive functions like statistical calculations involve interaction among different brain regions; the task is to discover the various brain regions and what stimulation is optimal for the targeted tasks for improvement.

“We are conducting another study where we place the cathodal electrode over the right temporal lobe, an area associated with short term emotional memory. We will still use the left intraparietal sulcus for the anodal stimulation. If there is an increase in successful statistical calculation, there is evidence that the left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex does play a role in math calculations.”

Dr. Houser is professor and chair of the department of educational studies in UA’s College of Education, while Dr. Thoma is a professor and program coordinator of the College’s educational psychology program.