In swinging 1964 while most of the world had its eyes locked on The Beatles World Tour, a team of Belgian scientists led by Romanian Corneliu E. Giurgea synthesized what Giurgea dubbed the first “nootropic”, Piracetam. The decades to follow heralded an exponentially growing trend of chemical cognitive enhancement with what is conversationally known as “smart drugs” among students and individuals with high stress, demanding work schedules such as shift workers and truck drivers. The drug known as Provigil (Modafinil), a variant of Adrafinil, was invented for the treatment of sleep disorders in the 1990s, and has even been used in military testing to prevent jet lag and circumvent a pilot’s natural circadian rhythms during long stints of wakefulness. These injestible artificially engineered enhancers would only be the first on an exponentially growing list of scientifically-born augmentations meant to improve the way man’s brain thinks and usher an age of more efficiently thinking humans into reality.
Recently, options for artificial enhancements of the brain have expanded into the world of wearable technology, an area that many consumers are still adjusting to as a reality. The invention of an “electric thinking cap” from researchers at Vanderbilt University. The study focused heavily on observing the medial-frontal cortex, the part of the brain believed to be responsible for the, “Oops!” reaction that we experience when making an error.
The researchers measured the electrical brain activity of each test subjects as they acted through a task using a game controller to select colors displayed on a monitor in an almost “Simon Says”-like fashion. Using variations to make the task more complicated, the researchers were able to determine how the mistake response affected the subject’s learning ability. The use of an elastic headband to secure two saline soaked sponges to the crown of the head and the cheek followed by 20 minutes of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the subject during the experiment. The extremely mild current was described as only a feeling of “itching” by the test subjects. Robert Reinhart, a Ph.D candidate and one of the psychologists working on the research team said, “We wanted to reach into your brain and causally control your inner critic.”
The results for the instances in which the current had been applied during the experiment yielded that the spike observed during the “Oops!” response was significantly larger, at approximately double in nearly all of the test subjects. On the screen, the subjects had been making fewer errors and learning more rapidly from the errors that they did make. Reinhart commented further that the process seemed to create a more cautious and less error-prone demeanor in the test subjects.
Another separate study performed by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center showed that the use of a brain implant has tested to improve decision making and restore lost mental capacity in rhesus monkeys. A troop of five monkeys was taught to observe a screen with a set of images and choose the matching image from a larger set on a different screen. For every correct answer, the monkeys were rewarded with a treat. After two years, what appeared to be chance-guessing on the part of the monkeys improved dramatically, demonstrating a 75 percent accuracy rate in their choices. The monkeys were further tested in their guessing game by being dosed with cocaine after the deactivation of the implant.
Monkeys in this state had an immediate 20 percent decrease in the amount of correct choices they made. The monkeys were again tested both with the cocaine and the use of the implant, and the decision making abilities of the monkeys were once again artificially enhanced as though the cocaine were not presently influencing their brains. While the more immediate practical application of the implant is to improve the cognition of Alzheimer and stroke patients, the further implications are that of prosthetically augmented intelligence.
Once thought of as science fiction fantasy, artificially enhanced intelligence appears to be more of a reality than ever before thought possible as we approach an exciting future in which biological limitations may be far less hindering.
By Faye Barton
Sonoma State University