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A new study explored how transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS) can enhance perception and boost neuroplasticity. Paulien Tabak/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • Most people seek out a quiet place to work or study, but recent research shows that “random noise” may actually improve our performance or learning potential.
  • By using electrodes to stimulate specific parts of the brain, previous research has shown that new connections and pathways can be made.
  • Now, researchers at Edith Cowan University have investigated the effects of one type of brain stimulation in a variety of settings and noted that this technique may have several applications.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt or change over time by creating new connections and pathways.

New research from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia highlights how transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS) can improve human perception, which may boost neuroplasticity and learning. The study expands on existing research that explores how tRNS can enhance cognition.

Despite its name, tRNS doesn’t involve “random noise” in an auditory sense.

Instead, tRNS is a noninvasive form of brain stimulation that sends a weak alternating current oscillating at random frequencies to the scalp using a pair of electrodes.

Speaking to Medical News Today, lead author Onno van der Groen, PhD, a research fellow in the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan highlighted the study’s key findings:

“tRNS can have an influence on human performance, for example, [on] attention, perception, perceptual decision making and learning in health and disease. Several studies have shown that people are able to learn faster and this effect could last over time.”

The results of the study were recently published in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

Dr. van der Groen explained how tRNS can measure and improve cognitive function using a real-life example:

“Imagine your task is writing an article for a magazine. In order for this task to be completed, you will have to work together with different departments (e.g., brain areas) such as your CEO or graphics department,” he said.

He added that tRNS can “enhance cortical responsiveness acutely of the underlying brain area,” the area of the brain that is targeted and stimulated depending on where the electrodes are placed.

“When we go back to our imaginary real-life example, we might target your graphics department and make them more responsive. The result could be that your team performance goes up since you just enhanced an area within your network.”

“Cognitive tasks are performed not by individual brain regions working in isolation, but by a network of several discrete regions that are ‘connected,’ which we call networks.”

– Onno van der Groen, PhD, lead author of the study

Ben Rein, PhD, a neuroscientist and postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research, highlighted to MNT that “this article is a review of the existing literature on tRNS [and is] a promising and up-and-coming method for brain stimulation.”

Dr. Rein explained that in tRNS, electrodes are placed on the scalp to stimulate the local brain tissue and increase its activity.

“Unlike other forms of electrical stimulation which stimulate at a steady, pre-set intensity, the current in tRNS fluctuates randomly within a range,” he said. “There is reason to believe that this type of stimulation — which is constantly changing in intensity — may be preferable.”

“While tRNS can increase local brain activity, it is unclear exactly how. There is evidence to suggest that it may activate sodium channels in neurons. When active, sodium channels cause positively charged ions to flow into the cell, boosting the cell’s electrical charge, and increasing the likelihood that the cell will ‘fire’ an action potential. So far, there is not clear evidence demonstrating that tRNS drives neuroplasticity. Rather, it seems to temporarily increase brain activity, allowing for enhanced performance in certain tasks — specifically those regulated by that brain area. Theoretically, the increased activity may drive plasticity in the targeted neurons, but the current evidence seems to not robustly indicate this.”

– Bein Rein, PhD, neuroscientist and postdoctoral scholar at Stanford

Experts like Dr. van de Groen agree that more research into using tRNS to improve cognition is still needed.

He told MNT that the results from the Edith Cowan research could yield a novel technique for enhancing human performance, but there are some obstacles to overcome before the technique could become widely accessible.

“tRNS is currently still under investigation in labs around the world. Before people in the ‘real world’ could access this, we need to better understand the working mechanisms behind it,” he said.

“There is already research going on in healthy subjects to push performance. This can, for example, be interesting for performance in stressful jobs, such as air traffic controllers or also for defense personnel where the stakes of making a mistake can be fatal.”

Further, Dr. van de Groen highlighted the ethical implications of using tRNS techniques:

“There should be an ethical debate, because what will be the consequence on society if we all start using this? We won’t be able to make ‘super humans’ (there appears to be a limit to how much we can enhance performance) but we could give people potentially a more competitive edge.”

“More ethical questions will arise such as, ‘what if parents, for example, start using this to enhance performance in their healthy children?’ [and] ‘will there be equal access in society to this technique?’ (likely not). Then there is also the question [of] what this does to the brain in the long term, that is, if you were to apply this every day, especially in children who do not have a mature brain yet.”

– Otto van de Groen, PhD, lead author of the study

Dr. van de Groen noted that “several neurological conditions show deficits in communication between different brain areas” (i.e., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia).

He added that “theoretically, tRNS has the potential to enhance communication between brain areas and in this way potentially alleviate some of the behavioral consequences of the neurological conditions,” as previous research has indicated.

Dr. Rein agreed but highlighted that more research is needed.

“Developing tools to effectively and precisely stimulate certain brain areas is a major mission in neuroscience. Any method that accomplishes this can be a very powerful tool, and tremendously valuable for neurology and neuropsychiatry,” Dr. Rein said.

“To date, the evidence suggests that tRNS can increase performance in certain learning, emotion perception, and visual detection tasks, while also improving sustained attention. However, tRNS could also be theoretically used for treating any condition characterized by regional changes in brain activity (such as stroke or depression).”

– Bein Rein, PhD, neuroscientist and postdoctoral scholar at Stanford

“Admittedly, tRNS does not seem to be ‘revolutionary’ in this way, but it does seem to have some advantages over existing methods of transcranial electrical stimulation,” Dr. Rein added.

“The evidence continues to build, but any step in the right direction is always exciting.”