A Shock to the System

While transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS for short) has become more widely used to treat various neurological and psychiatric conditions, its use in improving brain functioning such as memory and attention is a bit more controversial.   Still, a recent study by researchers suggests that it can be an effective way to make human operators stay vigilant in monotonous tasks such as drone operation and cyber defense.    

Using scalp electrodes to stimulate key areas of the brain has been carried out by researchers for more than a century though it still hasn't been formally approved for clinical use by agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.   When safety protocols are carefully followed, tDCS can usually be maintained for relatively brief periods with no negative effects (aside from occasional problems with skin irritation and nausea).   Studies have shown good results in treating depression and more mixed results for treating other conditions such as dementia, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia.  Tests on healthy subjects suggest that low-current stimulation to the brain can boost attention span, problem-solving, and memory though, again, these results tend to be controversial.

But what about something like vigilance?   While there are numerous tasks that we can do for relatively brief periods of time, performance often suffers if we are expected to do the same task for hours at a time without breaks.  Whether it involves operating heavy machinery or driving a car across the country, our minds have a tendency to "wander"after a while and the potential for making a mistake rise sharply with time.   Considering that some mistakes can be literally fatal, especially for military personnel, helping workers stay focused is essential.

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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