Using harmless electrical stimulation, researchers have shown that they can boost self-control by amplifying the human brain’s “brakes.”
Researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and the University of California, San Diego asked study participants to perform simple tasks in which they had to exert self-control to slow down their behavior. While doing so, the team used brain imaging to identify the areas of the participants’ prefrontal cortex (sometimes called the brain’s “command and control center”) associated with the behavior—allowing them to pinpoint the specific brain area that would need a boost to make each participant’s “braking” ability more effective.
They then placed electrodes on the surface of the participants’ brains associated with the prefrontal cortex areas linked with the behavior. With an imperceptible, computer-controlled electrical charge, researchers were able to enhance self-control at the exact time the participants needed it.
"There is a circuit in the brain for inhibiting or braking responses," said Nitin Tandon, M.D., the study's senior author and associate professor in The Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at the UTHealth Medical School. "We believe we are the first to show that we can enhance this braking system with brain stimulation."
To make sure that specifically stimulating the prefrontal cortex was really causing the effect, the researchers conducted a follow-up in which they placed the electrodes on other surface areas of the participants’ brains. Doing so had no effect.
That’s an important point, because it separates this study from past research that used electrical stimulation to disrupt general brain function. In contrast, this study shows that particular parts of the prefrontal cortex form a self-control circuit that can be externally enhanced.
What also makes this study noteworthy is that it was double-blind-- neither the researchers nor participants knew when or where the electrical charges were being administered. That’s critical because it means the participants would not know when to intentionally slow down their behavior to exaggerate the effect. They were, in a very real sense, being externally controlled by the stimulation, albeit only briefly.
The study has a few caveats. First, all of the participants were volunteers suffering from epilepsy who agreed to be monitored for seizures by hospital staff during the experiment. Second, there were only four participants—though all four experienced the self-control boosting effect. Obviously, placing electrodes on the surface of the brain is an invasive procedure, hence the small number of participants.
If this research sounds a little scary to you, you can relax knowing that we're a long way from externally controlling peoples' behavior. The true value of this study is to demonstrate that the brain's self-control circuit can be amplified, at least under certain conditions.
Placing electrodes on peoples' brains isn't a practical solution, but eventually the same effect may be triggered with scalp electrodes and, down the road, with medication that targets the self-control circuit. That may one day be promising news for sufferers of behavioral disorders like Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD.
The study was published in The Journal of Neuroscience.