Study: Shocks to the Forehead Make Other People Appear More Attractive

A way to control your brain that doesn't involve drilling holes in your skull
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PROBLEM: "It's not as bad as it sounds," wrote Richard Senelick of deep brain stimulation, a process that consists of "putting electrodes through a person's skull and into the most central parts of parts of their brain," and then controlling the brain's signaling via electric shocks. It's a viable treatment for Parkinson's and various neuropsychiatric disorders, like depression. And "the patient experiences little to no pain" (Senelick, again). Still, not drilling holes through the skull will always be preferable.

METHODOLOGY: At Caltech, researchers had 99 men and women rate a series of 70 computer-generated faces for attractiveness, on a scale from 0 to 7. They then applied electrodes to their foreheads and (for those who didn't end up in the control group) shocked them, mildly, for 15 minutes. Following the treatment, the participants were asked to evaluate 70 more faces, which the researchers made sure were just as attractive (or not) as the previous set.

RESULTS: The participants who received the electrical shocks found the second group of faces to be significantly more attractive than the first. fMRI scans taken before and after the stimulation showed increased activation of their prefrontal cortex, and also of the deeper midbrain region. They also experienced an increase in dopamine -- which suggests that their altered perception was caused by the activation of the midbrain's reward center.

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An increase in midbrain activity was positively correlated with attractiveness ratings.

IMPLICATIONS: The treatment used here, known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDSC), is typically used to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, conveniently located right behind the forehead. The midbrain, nestled deeper back, is harder to reach -- hence the drilling. The researchers seem to have managed to activate a network wherein stimulating the prefrontal cortex indirectly caused neural activity further back, and did so strongly enough to cause behavioral changes. Today, it's thinking people are better looking than they actually are. Tomorrow, it could mean the non-invasive treatment of neurological diseases.


The full study, "Noninvasive remote activation of the ventral midbrain by transcranial direct current stimulation of prefrontal cortex," is published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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