It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I’m feeling stupid and slightly grumpy. I have lingering jet lag because I took a trip to London last week and flew in last night from California. Now I’m sitting in the Brain Stimulation Unit of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, MD, with two electrodes affixed to my forehead. In a moment, a researcher in the lab of neurologist Eric Wassermann will activate a gizmo the size of a small clock radio, which will send an electric current through my frontal lobe, the part of the brain most associated with higher reasoning and emotion. For the next 40 minutes, the flow of electrons will create an electric field that lets neurons having to do with cognition and emotion fire more easily.
I’m here to investigate firsthand whether the latest brain gadgets and pills represent a new frontier in neuroenhancement. Wassermann has already told me that his device will not turn me into an Einstein. He is hoping that in people with brain injuries or impairments from disease, it will stimulate the cognitive centers to function better than they would otherwise. “We are starting with testing healthy people to get a baseline for how the technique works,” he says.
Two days from now I’m planning to further tweak my mind by taking a brain-boost pill. Called Provigil, it differs from its predecessors in that it is believed to home in on a section of the brain that helps govern alertness and memory. The pill is manufactured by Cephalon of Frazer, PA, and its active ingredient is called modafinil. The drug’s targeted delivery is supposed to prevent the side effects of stimulants that diffuse throughout the brain and rev up everything. Provigil has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for people who have excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy or otherwise disrupted sleep patterns–for example, from switching between shifts at work. In 2006, 2.6 million Provigil prescriptions were written. More than half of those were reportedly for off-label uses such as treating attention deficit disorder and depression.
In the Brain Stimulation Unit, a medical student turns on the juice under the watchful eye of Michael Koenigs, the postdoc running the experiment. I feel a slight tingle and an itch on my scalp as the current rises to 2.5 milliamps: a small amount, but enough to give a jolt. A couple of minutes later I have a metallic taste in my mouth. Koenigs warned me this might happen. Hundreds of people have been tested, and this is one of the few side effects they’ve reported.
In previous experiments on healthy people, Wassermann and others found that this procedure, called transcranial direct-current polarization, improved motor and cognitive performance. In one test, a direct current applied to the left frontal lobe boosted, by 20 percent, a person’s ability to name as many words beginning with a certain letter as possible in 90 seconds. Wassermann’s team is now testing electric fields with different charges against each other and against a sham, comparing subjects’ responses through tests that measure cognition, memory, and emotions.