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Scientists use brain stimulation to boost creativity in human trials, set stage to treat depression.

A UNC School of Medicine study has provided the first direct evidence that a low dose of electric current can enhance a specific brain pattern to boost creativity by an average of 7.4 percent in healthy adults, according to a common, well-validated test of creativity.  The team showed that using a 10-hertz current run through electrodes attached to the scalp enhanced the brain’s natural alpha wave oscillations, prominent rhythmic patterns that can be seen on an electroencephalogram, or EEG.

The team state that in this proof-of-concept they have provided the first evidence that specifically enhancing alpha oscillations is a causal trigger of a specific and complex behaviour, in this case creativity.  The team add that their goal is to use this approach to help people with neurological and psychiatric illnesses. Previous studies have shown that people with depression have impaired alpha oscillations. The team theorised that if they could enhance these brain activity patterns, then they could help many people.

The team is now in clinical trials to use this particular kind of brain stimulation for people with major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD, a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. Participant enrollment is now underway for both trials.

The researchers caution that the fact that they’ve managed to enhance creativity in a frequency-specific way, in a carefully-done double-blinded placebo-controlled study, doesn’t mean that they can definitely treat people with depression.  However, if people with depression are stuck in a thought pattern and fail to appropriately engage with reality, then the lab theorise that it’s possible that enhancing alpha oscillations could be a meaningful, noninvasive, and inexpensive treatment paradigm for them, similar to how it enhanced creativity in healthy participants.

At the center of the current study are neural oscillations, the naturally occurring rhythmic electrical patterns that neurons generate and repeat throughout the brain. Alpha oscillations occur within the frequency range of 8 and 12 Hertz 9 (or cycles per second). They were discovered in 1929 by Hans Berger, who invented EEG. Alpha oscillations occur most prominently when humans close their eyes and shut out sensory stimuli such as things they see, feel, taste, smell, and hear.

For a long time, people thought alpha waves represented the brain idling explain the team.  However, over the past 20 years the medical community have developed much better insight. Human brains are not wasting energy, creating these patterns for nothing. When the brain is decoupled from the environment, it still does important things state the researchers, adding that when alpha oscillations are prominent human sensory inputs might be offline as they daydream, meditate, or conjure ideas. Then when something happens that requires action the brain immediately redirects attention to what’s going on around the person. They come fully online, and the alpha oscillations disappear. Other oscillations at higher frequencies, such as gamma oscillations, take over.

Knowing this, other researchers began associating alpha oscillations with creativity. The team set out to find evidence. Their idea was simple, if they could enhance the rhythmic patterns of alpha oscillations to improve creativity, then it might be possible to enhance alpha oscillations to help people with depression and other conditions of the central nervous system that seem to involve the same brain patterns.  For three years the lab has used computer simulations and other experiments to hone a technique to improve alpha oscillation.

For the current study the team enrolled 20 healthy adults. The researchers placed electrodes on each side of each participant’s frontal scalp and a third electrode toward the back of the scalp. This way, the 10-Hertz alpha oscillation stimulation for each side of the cortex would be in unison. This is a key difference in lab’s method as compared to other brain stimulation techniques.

Each participant then underwent two sessions. During one session the researchers used a 10-Hertz sham stimulation for just five minutes. Participants felt a little tingle at the start of the five minutes. For the next 25 minutes each participant continued to take the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a comprehensive and commonly used test of creativity. In one task each participant was shown a small fraction of an illustration, sometimes just a bent line on a piece of paper. Participants used the line to complete an illustration, and they wrote a title when they finished.

In the other session each participant underwent the same protocol except they were stimulated at 10 Hertz for the entire 30 minutes while doing the Torrance test. The tingling sensation only occurred at the start of the stimulation, ensuring that each participant did not know which session was the control session.  Because rating creativity or scoring a test can involve subjectivity the team sent each participant’s work to the company that created the test and asked them to score the tests. The team then compared each participant’s creativity score for each session. They found that during the 30-minute stimulation sessions, participants scored an average 7.4 percentage points higher than they did during the control sessions.

However, in the current study there was a question if the electrical stimulation merely caused a general electric effect on the brain, independent of the alpha oscillation. To find out the team conducted the same experiments using 40-hertz of electrical current, which falls in the gamma frequency band typically associated with sensory processing when the brain is computing what a person sees, touches or hears.  Using 40-hertz the team saw no effect on creativity, adding that the effect they saw was specific to the 10-hertz alpha oscillations.

The researchers understand that some people might want to capitalize on this sort of study to boost creativity in their everyday lives, but cautioned against it stating that they don’t know if there are long-term safety concerns.  The team also have strong ethical concerns about cognitive enhancement for healthy adults, just as sports fans might have concerns about athletic enhancement through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The researchers are focused on treating people with depression and other mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, for which cognitive deficits during everyday life is a major problem.  The team surmise that there are people that are cognitively impaired and need help, and sometimes there are no medications that help or the drugs have serious side effects and helping these people is their priority.

Source:   UNC School of Medicine


Synergies of the Mind

Michelle Petersen View All

I am an award-winning science journalist and health industry veteran who has taught and worked in the field.

Featured by numerous prestigious brands and publishers, I specialize in clinical trial innovation–-expertise I gained while working in multiple positions within the private sector, the NHS, and Oxford University, where I taught undergraduates the spectrum of biological sciences integrating physics for over four years.

I recently secured tenure as a committee member for the Smart Works Charity, which helps women find employment in the UK.

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