Scientists improve human self-control through electrical brain stimulation | Medical Xpress


If you have ever said or done the wrong thing at the wrong time, you should read this. Neuroscientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and the University of California, San Diego, have successfully demonstrated a technique to enhance a form of self-control through a novel form of brain stimulation.

Study participants were asked to perform a simple behavioral task that required the braking/slowing of action – inhibition – in the brain. In each participant, the researchers first identified the specific location for this brake in the prefrontal region of the brain. Next, they increased activity in this brain region using stimulation with brief and imperceptible electrical charges. This led to increased braking – a form of enhanced self-control.

This proof-of-principle study appears in the Dec. 11 issue of The Journal of Neuroscienceand its methods may one day be useful for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette's syndrome and other severe disorders of self-control.

"There is a circuit in the brain for inhibiting or braking responses," said Nitin Tandon, M.D., the study's senior author and associate professor in The Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at the UTHealth Medical School. "We believe we are the first to show that we can enhance this braking system with brain stimulation."

A computer stimulated the prefrontal cortex exactly when braking was needed. This was done using electrodes implanted directly on the brain surface.

When the test was repeated with stimulation of a brain region outside the , there was no effect on behavior, showing the effect to be specific to the prefrontal braking system.

This was a double-blind study, meaning that participants and scientists did not know when or where the charges were being administered.

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  1. In reply to #1 by Jos Gibbons:

    I love how the last paragraph contextualises the hype in paragraph 3.

    Quite the contrast, isn’t it? It reminds me of a point Ben Goldacre made about The Caveat in Paragraph 19, in which the actual necessary qualifiers are dumped so low down that more people will take away the opening hype (or just the title) than the actual information:

    The late caveat, torpedoing the central premise of a news piece, is a common strategy in many newspapers. But what use is this information, at the end of a long article, in paragraph number 19?

    The way that people read newspapers has been studied widely using eyetracking technology. It’s through this that we discover, for example, that when presented with a full length photograph of a man, men are more likely to look at the penis area than women.

    Most of this research is more preoccupied with ads than news, because research in so many fields is funded by people with both questions and money – page top left is best, probably – but there is plenty of useful stuff, much of it by the Poynter Institute.

    They did an early study in 1990, finding some predictable stuff: that photos attract attention; eyes travel from the dominant photo to the biggest headline, then teasers, and finally text; text is read the least, headlines the most; and so on.

    Their most recent project was far bigger: they took a representative sample of 582 people from 4 cities in the US, and invited them in to read a newspaper and website as they normally would, wearing the eyetracking equipment, over 5 days in 2006, for 15 minutes each. This yielded a dataset of more than 102,000 eye stops.

    This is what they found: by the time you get to a story length of 8 to 11 paragraphs, on average, your readers read only half the story. A minority will make it to paragraph number 19, where, on this occasion, a fraction of the readers of the Daily Mail would have discovered that the central premise of the news story – that a new trial had found a 40% reduction in cancer through intermittent dieting – was false.

    Caveats in paragraph 19 are common. This evidence strongly suggests that they are also a sop: they permit a defense against criticism, through the strictest, most rigorous analysis of a piece. But if your interest is informing a reader, they are plainly misleading.

    Ah well, at least it’s a step in the right direction.

  2. In reply to #3 by Zeuglodon:

    I personally don’t see what is wrong with either paragraph. The last one emphasises that this was a double blind study. That’s a good thing. That type of study gives us greater confidence that the differences between experimental and control groups are real and not an artefact of a placebo effect or bias in either participants and researchers. The third paragraph emphasises where this research may one day lead. Not what it can do now but rather the potential and significance of it. That is standard practice within science whether writing an article or submitting a grant application. It’s not an attempt to sensationalise the work.

  3. Mind control should be of free will to educate and let people think for themselves or something like this could cause rebellion?? Who is the authority and are subjects volunteers if so is cool,. no sneaky stuff!

  4. This is hugely pertinent to the free will debate. It shows the effect of inputs to the front end of the behaviour modulating circuitry. Specifically the dorsolateral part of the the prefrontal cortex, one of the latest parts of the brain to evolve (I now learn.). Much high level inference generation is probably done here employing working memory and a broad range of inputs from around the brain. It is interestingly one of the few areas to have the broadband transmission cells, Spindle Cells, the other being the anterior cingulate cortex sitting behind this region but in front of brain stem regions and the autonomous emotional drivers like the amygdala. The ACC is the actual veto generator that stays our hand when the red mist (for instance) descends. The DLPFC probably works out that despite appearances Republicans are people too and that it is poor form to simply end their misery. The spindle cells speed this complex and slow deliberation on the negative outcomes of clocking one of these sad folk to the ACC, which then can bring our raised hand back down again.

    It would be good to see other parts of this executive veto system identified by specific very local stimulations. The quality of the judgment is the thing. Lowering the barrier to transmission from the DLPFC (if that is what is happening) of something potentially veto-worthy may not relate to the quality of that vetoing inference. The failure to veto sufficiently or adequately may lie in the ACC in its “error/conflict” detection function or some failure to adequately signal the actual and functional emotional state from lower down towards the brain stem autopilot.

    The “overselling” of this I suspect is just the scientists need to tell a compact story. Mine is overly simplified here. I know many other things are involved and I’m certain my knowledge is a skin depth of current scientific kowledge, itself a skin depth of the truth. Good things will eventually come from this mapping of function. Implanted electrode neural pacemakers are the astonishing new treatment for brain malfunctions. The treatment of many conditions by this means looks set to boom. This work could well create treatments for people like me who have idiotic failures of will under certain conditions and others whose failures are the reverse.

  5. It’s an invasive procedure that’s why I’m having worries just reading this. It’s really not a realistic way of treating self control disorders. However, what I am interested in is if there’s any way they could target that self control circuit through medication and how. I believe that would be a less scary option.

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