In an experiment straight out of a comic book, Virginia Tech scientists have found a way to improve sensory abilities. All it takes is a detailed map of the brain, an ultrasound gun, and a willing patient. What could go wrong?
The experiment was simple enough. The Virginia Tech team directed ultrasound waves at a particular part of the cerebral cortex and then tested subjects' sensory abilities with two tests: one that asked them to distinguish between two different pin pricks and another to determine the difference between puffs of air. Much to their surprise, the ultrasound improved the subjects' performance at both tests. When the ultrasound waves targeted the brain at a slightly different location, the improvement disappeared.
Professor William "Jamie" Tyler, who led the study, explains:
It seems paradoxical, but we suspect that the particular ultrasound waveform we used in the study alters the balance of synaptic inhibition and excitation between neighbouring neurons within the cerebral cortex. We believe focused ultrasound changed the balance of ongoing excitation and inhibition processing sensory stimuli in the brain region targeted and that this shift prevented the spatial spread of excitation in response to stimuli resulting in a functional improvement in perception.
The only other studies that have produced similar results required the use of electric shocks administered directly toward the brain, which is less than ideal. That makes ultrasound wave treatment seem like a day at the spa—which is not a bad idea come to think of it. Now we just need to perfect ultrasound-based telepathy and we'll really be on the way to being superheroes. [Virginia Tech]
Image via Shutterstock / Sebastian Kaulitzki