Can current stimulate smarts?

“I’m not yet con­vinced it’s going to work,” Misha Pavel, an expert in neural engi­neering and a
professor of prac­tice at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, said of the pos­si­bility of applying low-​​level
 cur­rent to the scalp as a means of improving intelligence.

But that skep­ti­cism has only inspired Pavel and his col­leagues, including asso­ciate pro­fessor of 
elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering Deniz Erdogmus, to work even harder on a project aimed
 at exploring their inno­v­a­tive research. They recently received a con­tract to study the
 phe­nom­enon from the Strength­ening Human Adap­tive Rea­soning and Problem-​​solving Pro­gram, known as SHARP. The pro­gram is spon­sored by the Intel­li­gence Advanced Research Projects
 Activity, a gov­ern­ment agency that invests in high-​​risk, high-​​payoff research.

Researchers at Oxford Uni­ver­sity, who are part of the same SHARP team as Erdogmus and 
Pavel, pre­vi­ously demon­strated that applying tran­scra­nial cur­rent stim­u­la­tion helps chil­dren 
per­form better on math­e­matics prob­lems. “The ques­tion is how well does this method work for 
improving fluid intel­li­gence,” said Pavel, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of 
Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ence.

Fluid intel­li­gence, he explained, is the ability to think log­i­cally and solve prob­lems in novel
 sit­u­a­tions, inde­pen­dent of acquired knowl­edge. It’s an intu­itive con­cept, he said, and it 
involves sev­eral types of brain processes including atten­tion, working memory, inhi­bi­tion, and 
the ability to shift rapidly between tasks.

To begin answering its research ques­tion, the team—which is led by Hon­ey­well, and also 
includes col­lab­o­ra­tors at Beth Israel Dea­coness Med­ical Center—will take advan­tage of 
Erdogmus’ exper­tise in devel­oping algo­rithms and models for mea­suring these processes using 
brain activity.

Erdogmus has more than a decade of expe­ri­ence working with brain-​​controlled inter­faces, having devel­oped tech­nolo­gies that allow users to con­trol a robot or com­puter with nothing but
 the power of his or her mind through elec­trical activity gen­er­ated in the brain. More recently, he’s been applying insights from that work to expand our knowl­edge of the human brain and its
 capacity for learning.

“So far we’ve been pri­marily mea­suring brain sig­nals and trying to make sense of them,”
 Erdogmus said. “Now for the first time we’ll actu­ally be trying to stim­u­late the brain in order 
to change the way it operates.”

From his pre­vious research, Erdogmus knows that cer­tain regions of the brain are more active 
during dif­ferent kinds of learning. For instance, when a stu­dent is focusing all his atten­tion on
 a single task, the frontal cortex and basal gan­glia appear to be more active, he said. The team
 plans to use this knowl­edge to develop effec­tive tran­scra­nial stim­u­la­tion pro­to­cols to improve 
fluid intelligence.

While an inter­ven­tion for improving intel­li­gence is the program’s pri­mary driver, the 
researchers’ work will also pro­vide the brain research com­mu­nity with a greater under­standing 
of the way one of the world’s most mys­te­rious machines—the brain—actually works.

“You have 100 bil­lion neu­rons in your brain and they work rel­a­tively well—for most of us—and
 do such com­plex things that we can’t yet pro­gram com­puters to do,” Pavel said. “It’s a 

With its SHARP research—which com­bines mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary empir­ical research with
computational modeling—the team hopes to con­tribute not only to the prac­tical call to improve 
intel­li­gence, but also to our cur­rent under­standing of this mys­te­rious machine called the 
human brain.


Related Faculty: Deniz Erdogmus

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering