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Can current stimulate smarts?

“I’m not yet convinced it’s going to work,” Misha Pavel, an expert in neural engineering and a
professor of practice at Northeastern University, said of the possibility of applying low-level
 current to the scalp as a means of improving intelligence.

But that skepticism has only inspired Pavel and his colleagues, including associate professor of 
electrical and computer engineering Deniz Erdogmus, to work even harder on a project aimed
 at exploring their innovative research. They recently received a contract to study the
 phenomenon from the Strengthening Human Adaptive Reasoning and Problem-solving Program, known as SHARP. The program is sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects
 Activity, a government agency that invests in high-risk, high-payoff research.

Researchers at Oxford University, who are part of the same SHARP team as Erdogmus and 
Pavel, previously demonstrated that applying transcranial current stimulation helps children 
perform better on mathematics problems. “The question is how well does this method work for 
improving fluid intelligence,” said Pavel, who holds joint appointments in the College of 
Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Science.

Fluid intelligence, he explained, is the ability to think logically and solve problems in novel
 situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It’s an intuitive concept, he said, and it 
involves several types of brain processes including attention, working memory, inhibition, and 
the ability to shift rapidly between tasks.

To begin answering its research question, the team—which is led by Honeywell, and also 
includes collaborators at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center—will take advantage of 
Erdogmus’ expertise in developing algorithms and models for measuring these processes using 
brain activity.

Erdogmus has more than a decade of experience working with brain-controlled interfaces, having developed technologies that allow users to control a robot or computer with nothing but
 the power of his or her mind through electrical activity generated in the brain. More recently, he’s been applying insights from that work to expand our knowledge of the human brain and its
 capacity for learning.

“So far we’ve been primarily measuring brain signals and trying to make sense of them,”
 Erdogmus said. “Now for the first time we’ll actually be trying to stimulate the brain in order 
to change the way it operates.”

From his previous research, Erdogmus knows that certain regions of the brain are more active 
during different kinds of learning. For instance, when a student is focusing all his attention on
 a single task, the frontal cortex and basal ganglia appear to be more active, he said. The team
 plans to use this knowledge to develop effective transcranial stimulation protocols to improve 
fluid intelligence.

While an intervention for improving intelligence is the program’s primary driver, the 
researchers’ work will also provide the brain research community with a greater understanding 
of the way one of the world’s most mysterious machines—the brain—actually works.

“You have 100 billion neurons in your brain and they work relatively well—for most of us—and
 do such complex things that we can’t yet program computers to do,” Pavel said. “It’s a 
mystery.”

With its SHARP research—which combines multidisciplinary empirical research with
computational modeling—the team hopes to contribute not only to the practical call to improve 
intelligence, but also to our current understanding of this mysterious machine called the 
human brain.