The United States Department of Defense is making a bet that human cognitive abilities can be improved by electrically stimulating nerves in order to encourage new connections in the brain — basically turning regular people into geniuses, allowing them to more quickly learn languages, break codes, or whatever Jason Bourne stuff they’re into.
The department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently awarded funds to eight university research teams working on the basic science that will guide the future of cognitive enhance technology.
So far, the promise of improved cognition has pushed eager individuals into taking drugs in an effort to boost cognition. Caffeine is common, and other tricks like microdoses of LSD are attracting attention.
But electrical stimulation has the potential to do a better job of getting you to where you want to be, without the downsides. The idea that electricity can change our brains has come a long way, and the science has come a long way since the sketch days of electroshock therapy. In theory, nerve stimulation can do more than just counteract disease, potentially pushing people from normal into superhuman territory. Today, targeted nerve stimulation is being used in treatment for a variety of conditions, including epilepsy and depression.
“Pharmacologic treatment can be very successful, but can also have various side effects,” says Kevin Otto, a biomedical engineer with the University of Florida who received one of the DARPA research grants. “Part of the reason is because of the systemic nature of drugs (when taken they tend to spread widely throughout the body). Neural stimulation has the potential advantage of being very targeted; consequently, we may be able to design devices and therapies that may approach or exceed traditional clinical therapies.”
Otto’s research will include behavior studies in rodents where they will stimulate the vagal nerve to determine if there is an effect on the animals’ perception, executive function, decision-making, and spatial navigation. There are ethical quandaries, of course — the creation of superhuman intelligence brings along with it a variety of implications that we can’t even begin to imagine yet — but scientists are hoping to understand the fine-tuning process more in mice before making any judgment calls on humans.