Monday, March 11, 2013

The mental cost of cognitive enhancement.

There has been quite a bit of interest lately in the prospect of enhancing various brain operations by the use of trans-cranial electrical stimulation (TES). Iuculano and Kadosh make the fascinating observation that enhancing one activity with TES can compromise another:

Noninvasive brain stimulation provides a potential tool for affecting brain functions in the typical and atypical brain and offers in several cases an alternative to pharmaceutical intervention. Some studies have suggested that transcranial electrical stimulation (TES), a form of noninvasive brain stimulation, can also be used to enhance cognitive performance. Critically, research so far has primarily focused on optimizing protocols for effective stimulation, or assessing potential physical side effects of TES while neglecting the possibility of cognitive side effects. We assessed this possibility by targeting the high-level cognitive abilities of learning and automaticity in the mathematical domain. Notably, learning and automaticity represent critical abilities for potential cognitive enhancement in typical and atypical populations. Over 6 d, healthy human adults underwent cognitive training on a new numerical notation while receiving TES to the posterior parietal cortex or the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Stimulation to the the posterior parietal cortex facilitated numerical learning, whereas automaticity for the learned material was impaired. In contrast, stimulation to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex impaired the learning process, whereas automaticity for the learned material was enhanced. The observed double dissociation indicates that cognitive enhancement through TES can occur at the expense of other cognitive functions. These findings have important implications for the future use of enhancement technologies for neurointervention and performance improvement in healthy populations.

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