Brain stimulation HRL labs
Scientists say tDCS might see use in the classroom of tomorrowJohn Enete/HRL Laboratories

Researchers in the US claim to have developed a means of electrically stimulating the brain to increase learning. Scientists from HRL Laboratories in California say they were able to improve the skill level of novice pilots by stimulating their brains so that their mental activity patterns resembled that of expert pilots.

The method involved fitting professional pilots with a head cap embedded with electrodes and subjecting them to a simulated flight exercise. After monitoring their brain activity, the scientists then asked inexperienced pilots to undertake the same exercise. Through use of something called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – essentially a low-current electrical brain stimulation – the researchers were able to replicate in the novice pilots the same brain activity seen in the experts and bring their ability to a similar level.

"When you learn something your brain physically changes," explains HRL research scientist Dr Matthew Phillips. "Connections are made and strengthened in a process called neuroplasticity and it turns out that certain functions of the brain like speech and memory are located within very specific regions of the brain. What our system does is actually target those changes to specific regions in the brain as you learn."

Transcranial direct current stimulation has previously been demonstrated as an effective method for helping stroke victims recuperate more quickly and has also shown potential in improving cognitive creativity. The practice of using electrical currents for rehabilitation purposes actually goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who are said to have applied electric fish to their heads to relieve pain. However, the HRL researchers claim that their study is the first to demonstrate that tDCS can be used as a way to accelerate practical learning.

While this may sound like something out of the Matrix, best not start taking red pills just yet: tDCS may be able to help people learn complex skills, but don't expect to be able to stick on a head cap and instantly know Kung Fu. Nevertheless, Phillips and his team suggest that such methods could eventually be commonplace in leaning environments to accelerate skill acquisition.

"As we discover more about optimising, personalising, and adapting brain stimulation protocols, we'll likely see these technologies become routine in training and classroom environments," said Phillips. "It's possible that brain stimulation could be implemented for classes like drivers' training, SAT prep, and language learning."