Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or tDCS has been used for years to treat patients suffering from conditions such as stroke, depression and bipolar disorder. A new breakthrough study from the researchers at the Catholic University Medical School in Rome shows that this non-evasive treatment could also improve how people learn and retain information.
The study, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global, involved the use of tDCS on mice. tDCS is applied using two small electrodes placed on the scalp, delivering short bursts of extremely low-intensity electrical currents. After exposing the mice to single 20-minute tDCS sessions, the researchers saw signs of improved memory and brain plasticity (the ability to form new connections between neurons when learning new information), which lasted at least a week. This intellectual boost was demonstrated by the enhanced performance of the mice during tests requiring them to navigate a water maze and distinguish between known and unknown objects. Using data gathered from the sessions, it was discovered that synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical to memory processing and storage, was increased.
While tDCS has been used for years, this study is unique as it supports the theory that there is a direct link between tDCS and improved brain plasticity. Understanding how this technique works biochemically may lead to advances in the treatment of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety–which affect learning and memory in otherwise healthy individuals. The implications of this research also have great potential to strengthen learning and memory in both healthy people and those with cognitive deficits such as Alzheimer’s.
More important, the researchers identified the actual molecular trigger behind the bolstered memory and plasticity, increased production of BDNF, a protein essential to brain growth. BDNF, which stands for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” is synthesized naturally by neurons and is crucial to neuronal development and specialization.
While the technique and behavioral effects of tDCS are not new, this study is the first to describe the technique and potential behavioral effects of tDCS which could help improve how people learn and retain information.