There was another day of the festival on Friday, but in the end I couldn’t make it, except for one final talk on brain stimulation. In the tradition of my other blogs here is a little summary of some of the interesting points:
Brain Stimulation: Perils and Promises
The first speaker talked about working with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation which seems to be as simple as slapping and anode and a cathode on the head, the anode on the bit of brain you want to increase activity in and the cathode on another bit to reduce activity.
This is a cheap, non-invasive and portable method that simply raises or lowers the threshold for activity that the neuron needs to fire, kind of like how a catalyst can lower the energy needed for a reaction to start. Also, since no-one really seems to know what goes on in the brain, they simply look for regions that are known to be active in some tasks and slap the apparatus on those bits. It seems kind of like the 21st century version of trepanning (cutting a whole in the skull to let out the demons). As you might expect, the results aren’t too clear cut. One experiment showed that brain stimulation of this sort can help improve memory tasks, but only in well-educated people, for example. For people with less that university level education there was no effect, and some even got worse. This might be because those people were already trying as hard as they could at the test without the stimulation, or perhaps because more highly educated people have learnt to perform this task in a different way in the brain. However, many of the other experiments discussed had much less clear cut distinctions about why there was so much variance in people’s performance.
There were four speakers in this talk, and so a lot of information, but I think the basic message that brain stimulation could certainly help enhance the learning and memory of some people, but exactly who it would be beneficial too in general and why on earth this is the case is still pretty much an unknown.
And now for the photos 😛