No Shortcuts in Cognitive Improvement


On the fourth day of our science advent, we would like to talk about something we think everyone should understand when it comes to the brain: there are no shortcuts in cognitive improvement (at least not yet).

More specifically, in recent years there has been an explosion of various “brain optimization”/”neurohacking”/other neuro buzzword strategies and/or devices promising to help people to learn faster, to sleep better, and in general, to be healthier and more fulfilled. Seemingly “grounded in neuroscience”, most of these simply borrow a couple of fancy-sounding words from the field, then proceed to dream up whatever they need to convince customers to part from their money. The claims they make are misleading at best and outright false at worst.

But while some things might just be a waste of money or a very expensive placebo, other such gimmicks carry the risk of real harm, both to the person using them, as well as to the field as a whole. For example, transcranial electrical stimulation, a method which has emerged in recent years, is being studied, among others, as being potentially beneficial for improving memory consolidation. The therapeutic goal is to use it as a treatment both for neurodegenerative disorders which lead to impaired memory, as well as for the natural decline in memory consolidation with advancing age. This is a complex technique that requires many variables to be adjusted, and as research shows, results can change significantly depending on how these variables are set. In research articles, scientists describe the parameters used in great detail and are careful not to generalize their claims to other parameter configurations.

However, commercial devices targeted directly to consumers have also emerged in recent years. Because they don’t make specific medical claims and are thus not marketed as medical devices, they don’t have to follow the same regulations as these. That also means they can reference existing research and clinical trials which use certain protocols, while selling devices that do not follow those protocols. These differences between protocols with parameters established through careful experimentation and protocols which use parameters of unclear origin can sometimes lead to measurable negative effects, such as memory disruption. In turn, if consumers use these improper devices and suffer as a consequence, they will be more likely to distrust that medical-grade devices could be any different, and they could end up passing on proper therapies.

Another example of neurotech built on a lack of understanding of the underlying processes is that of devices claiming to help you get either more REM or non-REM sleep. While in clinical settings practitioners might want to alter specific sleep features in an attempt to bring them back to normal, this kind of neurotech, similar to the one above, is marketed towards healthy adults. And in healthy adults, we start from the assumption that there is already a good balance between REM and non-REM sleep. In fact, there is already a body of evidence showing that each of these types of sleep is important for different aspects of memory. What’s more, sleep disturbances and imbalances are a ubiquitous symptom across a wide array of neuropsychological and neurodegenerative disorders. We do not have conclusive evidence about the causal relationship between REM/non-REM deficits and these disorders, but we also don’t have any evidence about the benefits of manipulating the REM/non-REM ratio in healthy adults, so this is the type of situation where it might be best to err on the side of caution.

So what can you do if you want to “improve your brain”? Well, for now, you’ll have to stick to the old-fashioned way: lead a healthy lifestyle (i.e.: eat proper food, pay attention to your sleep hygiene, work out, and relax) and engage in cognitively stimulating activities. And if need to study for exams, do it in advance instead of cramming the night before.

What did you think about this post? Let us know in the comments below.

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Further reading

Antal, A., Luber, B., Brem, A. K., Bikson, M., Brunoni, A. R., Kadosh, R. C., … & Paulus, W. (2022). Non-invasive brain stimulation and neuroenhancement. Clinical Neurophysiology Practice.

Peever, J., & Fuller, P. M. (2017). The biology of REM sleep. Current biology27(22), R1237-R1248.

Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About sleep’s role in memory. Physiological reviews.

Steenbergen, L., Sellaro, R., Hommel, B., Lindenberger, U., Kühn, S., & Colzato, L. S. (2016). “Unfocus” on foc. us: commercial tDCS headset impairs working memory. Experimental Brain Research234(3), 637-643.

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