Military wants to zap soldiers’ brains with electricity

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We’ve known for a long time that the brain runs on electricity. Our brains have neurons charged with electrical energy, and these electrical impulses tell the body’s nervous system what to do. But what happens when the body grows tired and the brain starts functioning at less-than-optimal levels?

This lower brain performance often happens when people spend long hours doing dull things like their jobs, resulting in substandard performance. Coffee and other caffeinated beverages can offer short boosts of energy, but aren't sustainable, and wear off very quickly. The Pentagon, though, believes it has a solution: zap soldiers’ brains with small amounts of electricity to keep them alert and focused for longer periods of time.

This sort of shock therapy isn't anything like what we’ve seen in the past for treating the mentally ill. This stimulation is non-invasive, and involves only small regulated doses of current into very specific areas of the brain. In recent tests, scientists applied one milliampere of electrical current to subjects' brains for 10 minutes, causing nerve impulses to begin firing faster. When compared to other subjects exposed only to caffeine (or none at all), those soldiers receiving the electric charges performed twice as better, even after 30 hours of being kept awake.

Obviously, the best solution for sleep-deprived soldiers would be, you know, sleep, but in a battlefield situation, sleep is not always possible. Also, soldiers must endure hours of non-activity that make them more fatigued, as well as very repetitive and boring jobs that are nonetheless critically important to pay close attention to. However, these men and women need stay sharp when something does happen, and they need to be able to process information quickly, regardless of how much sleep they’ve had or how long they’ve been dealing with an inactive situation. Coffee, along with other energy drinks, have previously been a solution, but these have side affects: they make people twitchy, elevate heart rates and they wear off quickly.

Although the Air Force has completed five studies on this technology, more needs to be learned about the long-term effects of electrical brain stimulation. In the civilian community, physicians are already re-visiting the concept of electrical stimulation to treat depression, but there is still so much about the brain that we don’t understand that any such technique will have to undergo intense scrutiny before we can all start wiring ourselves up.

Via Boston Globe

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