How ‘random noise’ stimulation could actually boost intelligence, brain function

Silence may be golden, but a little bit of background noise may actually unlock hidden learning potential in certain people. Scientists at Edith Cowan University investigated the effects of transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS), noting the technology may prove useful in a number of different settings.

The name is a bit misleading, as it doesn’t actually make use of “noise” in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, the process involves attaching a group of electrodes to the head to facilitate a weak electrical current that passes through specific parts of the brain.

The researchers believe tRNS has serious promise as a potential tool for people with compromised learning capabilities.

“The effect on learning is promising: it can speed up learning and help people with neurological conditions,” study leader Dr. Onno van der Groen says in a university release. “So, people with learning difficulties you can use it to enhance learning rate, for example. It’s also been trialed on people with visual deficits, such as after stroke and traumatic brain injury. When you add this type of stimulation during learning, you get better performance, faster learning and better attention afterwards as well.”

Study authors explain that tRNS helps the brain form new neural connections and pathways, a process formally referred to as neuroplasticity. “If you learn something, there has to be neuroplastic changes in your brain, which allows you to learn this information,” Dr. van der Groen explains. “And this is a tool to enhance this neuroplasticity.”

Generally speaking, tRNS appears to have two major effects on the mind: an “acute” effect that promotes improved performance while undergoing tRNS, and a “modulating” effect associated with longer lasting results.

“If you do 10 sessions of a visual perception task with the tRNS and then come back and do it again without it, you’ll find you perform better than the control group who hasn’t used it,” Dr. van der Groen adds.

Can tRNS make the average person smarter?

The prospect of expanding one’s learning capabilities and limits is certainly attractive. Who doesn’t want to become smarter faster? However, study authors explain that technology like tRNS also come with many additional, lingering questions.

While the focus is currently on how this technology can help those with learning difficulties, researchers admit they’ve wondered what effect tRNS will have on a “neurotypical person.” Dr. van der Groen says it’s possible that tRNS may be able to take the average individual’s intelligence to new heights, but adds it is unlikely the technology will create a “new level of intelligence.”

“The question is, if you’re neurotypical, are you already performing at your peak,” the study author comments. “There’s a case study where they tried to enhance the mathematical skills of a super mathematician; with him, it didn’t have much of an impact on his performance, presumably because he is already a top performer in that area. But it could be used if you’re learning something new.”

Is ‘random noise’ therapy available right now?

Right now, tRNS technology is still very much in its infancy. The only way people can access it is by entering a controlled trial. Still, researchers are optimistic tRNS will one day have a number of different applications in the real world.

“The concept is relatively simple,” Dr. van der Groen notes. “It’s like a battery: the current runs from plus to minus, but it goes through your head as well. We’re working on a study where we send the equipment to people, and they apply everything themselves remotely. So in that regards, it’s quite easy to use.”

Meanwhile, other scientists all over the world are currently investigating tRNS’s effects on perception, working memory, sensory processing, and various other aspects of behavior. The technology has already shown notable promise as a treatment for a wide array of clinical conditions.

“We’re still trying to find out how best we can use it,” Dr. van der Groen concludes.

The study is published in the journal Neuroscience.

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