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Stimulating the expansion of human cognitive potential

A dramatic leap into a new dimension of human learning capability appears to be within reach through the promise of advances in neuroengineering. Arizona State University researchers are poised to play a meaningful role in making that progress.

 “We’re excited because we anticipate developing noninvasive methods of enhancing cognitive performance, motor performance and sensory performance that would make people a lot better at a lot of things,” says Stephen Helms Tillery.

“To the extent that this works we are going to have all kinds places where we can put this technology to work,” says the associate professor of biomedical engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Helms Tillery is the principal investigator for one of eight new multi-institutional research projects being coordinated under the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Best known as DARPA, the agency is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense with a long record of supporting work that has led to technological breakthroughs.  

Illustration of a human brain with a caption of "The project will focus on increasing the brain’s capabilities by enabling more intense concentration, and enhancing neuroplasticity to expand an individual’s ability to learn more quickly and thoroughly.

The project will focus on increasing the brain’s capabilities by enabling more intense concentration, and enhancing neuroplasticity to expand an individual’s ability to learn more quickly and thoroughly.

Revving up the brain’s learning power

The ASU-led project —Transdermal Electrical Neuromodulation for Performance Optimization — is tasked with developing applied neurotechnologies for propelling expansion of human learning and performance abilities.

Neuromodulation is a process already used to regulate activity in the nervous system by controlling the physiological levels of several classes of neurotransmitters. Electrical stimulation or chemical agents are commonly used to stimulate nerve activity for therapeutic purposes.

Helms Tillery and his collaborators will employ that process in experimenting with arrays of electrodes placed in various configurations on the scalp. Electrical current will then be passed through the scalp to targeted neuromodulatory centers in the brain stem.

The goal is to activate specific parts of the brain in the hope of producing physiological changes that stimulate cognitive powers that, for example, could heighten an individual’s mental awareness and concentration.

“What we think we can do is increase neuroplasticity, which will make the brain more receptive to learning things and figuring out what new things it needs to learn,” explains Helms Tillery, who directs the Sensorimotor Research Group at ASU.

Testing new neuromodulation methods

The work focuses on applications for boosting the performance of troops involved in military operations, especially those deployed in combat environments.

But the treatment could also be used to “improve performance in athletics, or even potentially academic performance or musical performance. This could benefit a broad swath of humanity,” he says.

Associate Professor W. J. Tyler describes the project as “kind of like a space odyssey into the brain” that challenges researchers to “combine the latest knowledge from the science of learning with the capabilities of modern electrical engineering and biomedical engineering technologies.”

Tyler will seek to develop cranial nerve stimulation protocols that enhance the processing of sensory information in primary brain circuits, such as the visual cortex, auditory cortex and somatosensory cortex. His main focus will be on verifying tests of the new neuromodulation methods on humans.

He’ll help to explore how learning can be improved by electrically regulating the level of neurochemicals such as norepinephrine and serotonin, using a technique called transdermal electrical neurostimulation. That will involve targeting different groups of nerves with pulsed electrical signals at specific times during learning activities.

Illustration of the inside of a human skull with a caption of "Researchers will develop methods to non-invasively stimulate a brainstem nucleus, the locus coeruleus, that is involved in arousal and attention.."

Researchers will develop methods to non-invasively stimulate a brainstem nucleus, the locus coeruleus, that is involved in arousal and attention.

Research partners offer range of expertise

Tyler is among the project’s co-principal investigators who are faculty members in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools. The others are Associate Professor Christopher Buneo, Assistant Professor Vikram Kodibagkar and Assistant Professor Rosalind Sadlier.

Another co-principal investigator is Jason Robert, director of ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics and a professor in the School of Life Sciences.

The project’s partners are the California Institute of Technology, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, which is the Defense Department’s primary lab for soldier health and performance research.

Potential cost-effectiveness benefits

The ASU-led team will zero in on what neuromodulation techniques can do to improve the cognitive performance of military sharpshooters and soldiers who operate drone technologies.

An emphasis will be ratcheting up soldiers’ abilities to rapidly process information, make decisions and act effectively in battlefield scenarios.

In addition to improving the effectiveness of troops in critical operations, the project could yield some additional benefits.

“Training even one individual for some of highly skilled military positions can take years and cost the Department of Defense millions of dollars,” Tyler says. “If people’s cognitive abilities can be significantly enhanced, it could over time save the government many billions of dollars.”

The recently announced DARPA grant for the project provides for up to $5.3 million over four years.

To learn more, see the DARPA news release about this project and others being funded through the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training program.

About The Author

Joe Kullman

Before coming to ASU in 2006 as the first senior media relations officer for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Joe had worked as a reporter, writer and editor for newspapers and magazines dating back to the dawn of the age of the personal computer. He began his career while earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in philosophy from Kent State University in Ohio. Media Contact: joe.kullman@asu.edu | (480) 965-8122 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Communications

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