Powerful Demonstrations of How Magnets Can Affect Your Brain

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April 27, 2011 | 134,205 views

Magnetic fields can improve your memory and even control your behavior and sense of morality. This video shows just how strongly they can affect your brain. New Scientist editor Roger Highfield's recitation of "Humpty Dumpty" is interrupted by magnetic interference.

Neuroscientists have also revealed that administering electricity to the scalp -- powered by a 9-volt battery -- improves video game skills. Those who received 2 milliamps of electricity to the brain played twice as well as those who received a tinier jolt.

As Popsci reported:

"It's different from transcranial magnetic stimulation, in which a magnetic coil running at high voltage is positioned close to the head. The magnets stimulate electrical responses in the brain. Transcranial direct current stimulation is just what it sounds, applying the current directly to the brain."

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) creates weak electric currents that stop your brain cells from working normally on a temporary basis. As shown in the video above, it can easily make normal speaking virtually impossible, but it has some potentially beneficial uses as well.

TMS is approved to treat depression in Canada and Israel, and is available as a research procedure in the United States. It is typically used to treat depression but also has been used for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.

How Do Magnets Alter Your Brain?

Your brain consists of about 100 billion neurons, which are able to communicate even though they are not physically connected. This communication happens across a tiny empty space called a synapse, and it is largely the patterns of formation and fading of these synapse connections that form your ability to learn and function.

There are anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 synapses for each of your 100 billion neurons, to give you an idea of just how complex and amazing a communication system is currently at work in your brain.

If you are able to change the pattern of your brain's synapses, you can alter your very mind, and this is what neuroengineers attempt to do, often using artificial devices like TMS. In one study, when researchers administered even a super fast 500-millisecond magnetic pulse to the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) of the brain, it rendered participants unable to make moral judgments.

Is Magnetic Stimulation Safe?

So far reported side effects have been mild, such as headache, lightheadedness or tingling in facial muscles, though in rare cases seizure, mania, and hearing problems have also been reported. With deep-brain stimulation, more serious risks have occurred, including bleeding in the brain, delirium, unwanted mood changes, seizure, infection and movement and speech disorders.

However, the long-term implications of interfering with the workings of your brain are completely unknown, and even in the short term there is the issue of being exposed to strong electromagnetic fields. So although this area of medicine shows promise, it needs to be viewed with a strong air of caution.

What About "Electrifying" Your Brain?

Electricity is also being used to alter the brain using a technique known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involves applying an electrical current directly to your brain. When neuroscientists at the University of New Mexico applied 2 milliamps of electricity -- powered by a simple 9-volt battery -- to the scalps of video game players it improved their playing skills by two times compared to players who received one-twentieth the amount of current.

As Popular Science reported:

"Researchers are beginning to understand how an external electrical current affects brain function, including by inducing changes to the flow of electricity across neurons and increasing the expression of certain synapse proteins. Apparently, it takes very little electricity to do all this."

Therapies using tDCS can be conducted using just $1,000 worth of equipment, which means the profit margin is still too small to entice many companies to invest in clinical trials. But so far work by Vincent Clark, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico who was involved in the video game study, has shown that in addition to improving learning, tDCS may lead to an enhanced ability to see concealed threats.

Other studies have also shown tDCS may lead to improvements in:

Working memory Word association Complex problem-solving
Depression Post-traumatic stress disorder Addictions and cravings
Pain Stroke Autism

Unlike the electroconvulsive therapy of decades past, which used electric shocks up to 1,000 times stronger than those used in tDCS and caused seizures and other dangerous side effects, tDCS appears to have only minimal side effects, such as burning or itching at the point where the electrode is attached to your scalp. Still, until the effects of tDCS are more widely known, don't try this at home.

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