Australian scientists say that transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) can improve the lives of schizophrenia patients. Stimulation for just 20 minutes at a time should do.
It is an experimental therapy in which a small electrical current is passed to the brain through the scalp and skull. While originally developed in the early 19th century, the advantages of tDCS are only now being discovered.
Transcranial direct current stimulation has been determined safe for human use due to the low current used and can result in cortical modulations that last longer than the time of stimulation.
Currently, tDCS is used as therapy for certain psychological disorders such as anxiety disorders and depression, as well as a tool for motor rehabilitation in stroke patients.
Now Australian scientists have found it boosted learning from feedback. Such a process is important in everyday life, for example in learning to act on cues from other people in social situations, points out lead researcher, Dr Tom Weickert of the Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA).
"There are very few new treatment options for people with schizophrenia, so finding a different treatment that is promising and also has little in the way of side effects is very exciting," he says.
In their study, the researchers applied to the pre-frontal cortex. One of the characteristics of schizophrenia is reduced brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain used for thinking, motivation and learning.
During the application, participants were asked to complete a computer task designed to measure improvements in a type of learning called 'implicit learning', in this case learning to predict the weather (rain or shine) using tarot cards.
The team found that tDCS improved learning abilities in those people who already showed some potential to learn during an initial testing session without brain stimulation.
"The brain stimulation may encourage other nerve cells close by to become active and improve learning," says Dr Weickert.
The next step in the research is to determine whether the brain stimulation technique has a lasting effect on learning abilities. The study, in which participants will receive 20 minutes of tDCS five days a week for four weeks, is already underway.
The research was published in the journal Schizophrenia Research.