Ever see those inductive current phone chargers? Those pads you simply place your phone on to charge them up without any wires? They work through electromagnetic currents. Very cool stuff. Even cooler? Using essentially the same idea to stimulate your brain.
Okay, maybe some of you won’t think it’s cool. But I did. So I volunteered to have it done to me!
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive (no wires/ surgury/ chemicals) method of depolarizing (causing electrical stimulation) of brain tissue. Its only been around for about 30 years or so, but it’s growing in popularity as a method of studying the brain, and perhaps even treating particular conditions.
Here I am getting zapped:
The TMS machine used simply gives a quick burst of stimulation, roughly to the area of the motor cortex of the brain (not very specific). When stimulated, the biceps (and a bunch of other muscles) contract.
About the lack of specificity: to give you an idea, if you stimulate the occipital lobe (the brain area responsible for vision) you just see a flash of light. It’s not like moving the probe slightly will cause you to see the mona lisa or your best friends face. Likewise, it’s doubtful you can simply stimulate the “golf swing” area to improve such as specific skill. It’ll be interesting, however, to see how the technology improves over time.
As you can see, EMG electrodes are attached to my biceps to measure muscle activity, which I could see on a computer screen in front of me (see the last ‘Lab Fun‘ blog post). It’s hard to see, but I also have a electrical stimulator right above my collar bone, so that my arm muscles can be stimulated there too. This way, we can compare things between the two (stimulation of the brain versus stimulation of the nerve).
Something very cool: if you imagine contracting your muscle, but don’t actually contract your muscle, it actually takes a lot less of a TMS current to cause your muscle to contract. It’s as if thinking of contracting the muscle primes it for action. Gives some interesting insights to how mental imagery works!
The whole experience was a lot of fun. The TMS didn’t hurt at all – but it did feel weird!
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