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Brain Acceleration Technique Proven to Enhance Learning, Improve Memory
Everyone could be wearing a tDCS cap in 5-10 years, top scientist states.
I’ve written several articles on brain stimulation, a topic I’m fascinated with. One in particular was about a project at The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This is the R&D wing of the US Department of Defense (DoD). In the previous study, DARPA scientists employed electrical brain stimulation via implants to help those who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), regain some memory and learning capacity. Other programs seek to accelerate learning and boost performance in normal, healthy humans.
Imagine my surprise when a scientist working on a DARPA project emailed me about an exciting study, published recently in the journal Current Biology. Being a halfway decent journalist, I followed up with one Dr. Praveen Pilly, from HRL Laboratories in Malibu, Calif. He and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal and Soterix Medical in New York, have been working in the DARPA Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program. Currently, they’re focusing on the DARPA Replay program.
DARPA RAM was created to help address the hundreds of thousands of service members and millions of civilians who suffer from TBI. DARPA wanted an implantable device to help restore memory to those sufferers. This would mean brain surgery for implantation. Dr. Pilly slowly convinced them that a non-invasive method was just as helpful.
Dr. Praveen K. Pilly, principal investigator on the DARPA RAM study. Credit: HRL Laboratories.
Now Dr. Pilly is also working in DARPA’s RAM Replay program. This works with normal, healthy adults. The point is to accelerate learning and enhance memory formation by modulating neural “replays” during sleep. In this published DARPA RAM study, Pilly and colleagues used transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on macaque monkeys. This is where low-level electrical current is applied to the brain via electrodes placed at strategic areas on the scalp.
Some studies have shown that tDCS can improve verbal memory and cognition. And one small study found it might improve math retention. Research has even suggested that tDCS might be useful in treating conditions such as depression, Parkinson’s, and chronic pain.
Dr. Pilly said the goal was to see if there was a neural basis for tDCS. Last year in the midst of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual conference, György Buzsáki of NYU, cast doubt on whether tDCS could in fact alter behavior. In his study, Buzsáki hooked up a cadaver to 200 electrodes. He also put sensors inside the cranium. But they failed to detect any changes in neural spiking.
The skull and skin of the head divert 90% of the electricity emitted, the NYU study found. The reason to Pilly was obvious. It isn’t any particular region or increased spiking of neurons, but communication between the cortical areas that counts. The little current that gets through he says, facilitates such communication, providing better coherence between regions.
In one NYU study (pictured here), tCDS failed to cause neurons to fire inside a cadaver’s brain. Note: this was unrelated to the HRL study. According to Dr. Pilly, it’s not individual neurons, but communication between brain regions that counts. Credit: University of Szeged.
Pilly and colleagues set out, not only to show that tDCS works but reveal the mechanism behind it. In this study, applying tDCS to the right prefrontal cortex was shown to improve a macaque monkey’s performance in what researchers called an “associative learning task.” In yet to be published research, as part of the REM RAM Replay program, they proved it works in humans, too.
Static electrical fields applied just outside the brain increased coherence between the right prefrontal cortex and the left inferotemporal cortex (ITC). These areas control executive function, which has to do with managing time, paying attention, remembering details, and other tasks associated with learning.
What they found is that tDCS can influence brain oscillations. “Transcranial stimulation can cause many statistically significant neural changes,” Dr. Pilly said. “Changes in functional connectivity between areas in high frequency bands accounts for improvements within learning.”
First, scientists at McGill took macaques monkeys and implanted sensor arrays inside their brains. While other studies have done similar experiments monitoring the brain with an EEG machine, here scientists could measure the firing of neurons in vivo (from the inside), using intracranial sensing.
“We recorded changes in local field potential (LFP), multi-unit activity (MUA), and single-neuron activity at multiple sites within the neocortex,” Dr. Pilly said. Then they hid a certain symbol among an environment. That symbol led to a food-based reward. This was in order to make an arbitrary association between a certain image and the reward. “The association cannot be inferred. You have to form a memory, in the lab, on the fly, for the experiment,” Pilly said.
Improving coherence between cortical areas can improve learning and memory retention. Credit: By Bruce Blaus. Blausen.com. Wikipedia Commons.
It took on average 15 seconds for the monkeys to make the association from scratch, but 2 seconds when it was already in their minds. “Once you learn, there’s no difference in reaction time whether you’ve been stimulated or not,” Pilly said. What they checked was how fast the monkeys could make the association. They ran them through the experiment with their brain’s stimulated and not. The non-stimulated monkeys went through 22 trials before the association was fully formed. Stimulated monkeys took only 12 trials. This was about a 40% improvement in learning speed.
The sensor implants within the monkey’s brains were able to record the changes caused by tDCS. The scientists really wanted to know the effect tDCS had on single neurons. This study used continuous electrical stimulation in open loop. But today, they’ve moved beyond that, Dr. Pilly said. They can now target the optimal moment to stimulate a subject in order to solidify association, vis-à-vis learning or memory. And it’s all done non-invasively at a safe level of current.
“This paper is about understanding the mechanism of tDCS,” Dr. Pilly said. The research for this current paper wrapped up two years ago. More recently, he’s turned his attention to the DARPA RAM Replay program. Here, he and colleagues have been working with healthy adult human volunteers to test transcranial stimulation, to see if it can improve learning, association, and memory. Memory depends on a number of different areas of the brain, the most important being the hippocampus. Signals from here and other areas coordinate with one another to form the experiences and knowledge we recall.
Both the sleep and waking process are pivotal to learning. “We can enhance memory function by intervening during sleep,” Pilly said. “Say we have 10 memories that you learned during the day. You want to enhance a subset of them. We can intervene in such a way that the performance can be enhanced for those specific memories. We can demonstrate better recall two days later. And we can do much, much more.”
A time may come when we’re all wearing our “thinking caps.” Credit: Getty Images.
With the monkey study, the primates received low-level electrical current to areas of the brain for tens of minutes. According to Pilly, he and his team can now target stimulation, intervening only at critical points, when memory formation is most likely to occur. “We’re replicating monkey experiment with stimulation occurring only for one second” he said, “just when it gets the reward.” That’s when the association is made.
In a study published in 2007, a German team proved they could help facilitate learning by stimulating the brain in sleep through the olfactory system. As part of the RAM Replay program, Pilly and his team have shown that just a single pulse at the right time can facilitate learning and memory consolidation. Then they reinforce the memory by delivering another pulse at a key point during sleep. “Whatever can be done through sensory cuing can be done electrically and more efficiently,” Pilly said.
The goal is to get this tech adopted into wider society. Dr. Pilly says it’s inexpensive. “Just like having a better diet, this shouldn’t differentiate people.” Otherwise, you could cause a cerebral inequality gap. Fortunately, this isn’t a classified project and all the results are being published. “Anyone can implement whatever insights we are presenting,” he said. They will eventually seek out FDA approval for a particular device. He believes that in 5-10 years, use of this technology will be widespread.
To learn more about tDCS, click here:
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>