Intelligence is classically thought of as an immutable characteristic of each individual, pre-determined by genetics and permanent for a person’s entire life. But what if this is not true? It is an appealing idea to think that somehow, one can voluntarily, and naturally, boost his or her level of cognitive performance. Research has already shown that the brain is more plastic than originally thought. Parts of the hippocampus, a subcortical brain structure implicated in tasks of memory and other cognitive control functions, as well as the olfactory bulb (smell center) have been shown to generate new neurons after initial neurogenesis in the mammalian brain. These findings play into the idea that there is a way to somehow become smarter, even though you aren’t necessarily born with such cognitive gifts.
There are now apps and other computer programs that claim to improve brain function with excessive use. One of the bigger names in this field, Lumosity, runs advertisements that their brain-training program is backed by research and is “based on neuroscience.” The purpose here is not to discredit such apps like Lumosity and Brain Fit, but to take a closer look at the legitimacy of these claims of cognitive improvement, examine some actual research being done, and encourage a critical approach to a topic that popular culture REALLY wants to be true.
Research has been conducted that proves that our thoughts can control the rate of firing of neurons in our brain. This research reveals the crucial advancement of brain-operated machines in the field. John P. Donoghue at Brown University has conducted research that uses neural interface systems (NISs) to aid paraplegics. NISs allows people to control artificial limbs; individuals simply need to think about commanding their artificial limbs and signals are sent down from their brain to control the movement of these limbs! This great feat is not the only applicable result of current research done by brain-machine interfaces. Dr. Frank Guenther of Boston University uses implanted electrodes in a part of the brain that controls speech to tentatively give a voice back to those who have been struck mute by brain injuries. The signals produced from these electrodes are sent wirelessly to a machine that is able to synthesize and interpret these signals into speech. This is specifically useful for patients suffering from locked in syndrome, wherein an individual with a perfectly normal brain is unable to communicate due to specific brain damage, and thus allowing these individuals to communicate with the world! These discoveries are not only incredibly useful, but they also reveal the astonishing feats that the field of computational neuroscience is accomplishing in the world today.