Prepare to Be Shocked

Four predictions about how brain stimulation will make us smarter

As we learn more about our neurons’ wiring, through efforts like President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative—a huge, multiagency attempt to map the brain—we may become better able to deliver energy to exactly the right spots, as opposed to bathing big portions of the brain in current or ultrasound. Early research suggests that such targeting could mean the difference between modest improvements and the startling DARPA results. It’s not hard to imagine a plethora of treatments tailored to specific types of learning, cognition, or mood—a bit of current here to boost working memory, some there to help with linguistic fluency, a dash of ultrasound to improve one’s sense of well-being.

4. The most important application may be clinical treatment.

City College’s Bikson worries that an emphasis on cognitive enhancement could overshadow therapies for the sick, which he sees as the more promising application of this technology. In his view, do-it-yourself tDCS is a sideshow—clinical tDCS could be used to treat people suffering from epilepsy, migraines, stroke damage, and depression. “The science and early medical trials suggest tDCS can have as large an impact as drugs and specifically treat those who have failed to respond to drugs,” he told me. “tDCS researchers go to work every day knowing the long-term goal is to reduce human suffering on a transformative scale.” To that end, many of them would like to see clinical trials test tDCS against leading drug therapies. “Hopefully the National Institutes of Health will do that,” Parasuraman, the George Mason professor, said. “I’d like to see straightforward, side-by-side competition between tDCS and antidepressants. May the best thing win.”


A Brief Chronicle of Cognitive Enhancement

500 b.c.: Ancient Greek scholars wear rosemary in their hair, believing it to boost memory.

1886: John Pemberton formulates the original Coca-Cola, with cocaine and caffeine. It’s advertised as a “brain tonic.”

1955: The FDA licenses methylphenidate—a k a Ritalin—for treating “hyperactivity.”

1997: Julie Aigner-Clark launches Baby Einstein, a line of products claiming to “facilitate the development of the brain in infants.”

1998: Provigil hits the U.S. market.

2005: Lumosity, a San Francisco company devoted to online “brain training,” is founded.

2020: A tDCS company starts an SAT-prep service for high-school students.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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