Direct Current Brain Stimulation May Boost Creativity

Nancy A. Melville

April 25, 2016

The use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in the frontopolar cortex of the brain gives an added boost to creativity in the performance of novel tasks, suggesting potential benefits in areas of reasoning and decision making, new research shows.

"These findings provide evidence that tDCS can improve a valuable form of creative intelligence, analogical reasoning, which no tDCS study to our knowledge has explored," the investigators, led by Peter Turkeltaub, MD, PhD, of Georgetown University Medical Center and MedStar National Rehabilitation Network, Washington, DC, write.

The study was published online April 13 in Cerebral Cortex.

A Real Effect

In previous research, the investigators found that the frontopolar cortex area of the brain was highly engaged when individuals focused intensely on solving a creative task through "conscious augmentation," or what the authors more simply describe as a "thinking cap effect."

For the new study, the authors speculated that "given the evidence that conscious, 'thinking cap' state creativity augmentation is effective, including specific effects on relational cognition, can neuromodulation boost this effect further?"

They enrolled 31 persons (average age, 21 years), who were randomly assigned to receive high-definition anodal tDCS (n = 15) or a sham treatment (n = 16). There were six women in the tDCS group and 10 in the sham group; the groups had similar characteristics.

While receiving either tDCS or sham treatment, participants performed a novel analogy-finding task, which measured the participants' ability to identify creative analogical connections in a large matrix of possible word pair combinations. The participants were also challenged with a simpler verb generation task, called the Thin Slice Creativity Task.

Data for five participants (one tDCS; four sham) were lost from the verb generation task, and one of the tDCS participant's data were lost from the analogical reasoning task, all due to data collection software errors. Two participants (one tDCS, one sham) were excluded from the analogy finding task analysis because the amount of time taken to complete a task matrix was extremely brief (<20 seconds).

For the remaining participants, the results showed that those in the tDCS stimulation group had significant improvement in their ability to formulate creative analogical connections in a large matrix search space, measured in total "semantic distance" of analogies formed compared with the sham group (P = .025).

The tDCS group also identified higher numbers of valid analogies (P = .021) and facilitated more creative responding in verb generation.

Importantly, the increased creativity observed in the tDCS group was not the result of a reduction in accuracy in determining valid analogies, suggesting the creativity was "real" rather than "inappropriate divergence," Dr Turkeltaub told Medscape Medical News.

"We demonstrated that the enhanced creativity was useful here in that participants found more meaningful analogies, and not just random, meaningless analogies," he added.

With enhancement of creativity potential extending to functions such as reasoning and decision making, the possibility of a real-world application of tDCS seems intriguing; however, Dr Turkeltaub underscored the fact that the study was not designed to address that suggestion.

"This study was designed to address a basic science question, not to provide a clinical intervention. One could imagine a number of potential applications of this approach, both clinically and commercially, but it's important to note that we have not demonstrated any lasting effects of stimulation and have not shown that the size of the effect would provide any real-world benefits," he said.

That does not mean, however, that the researchers do not envision potentially important applications of the technology.

"We do hope that ultimately, this type of stimulation might be useful to augment rehabilitation from cognitive and language deficits related to a variety of disorders," said Dr Turkeltaub.

"For instance, my own clinical practice focuses on aphasia, so I'm interested to know if this type of stimulation might help people with aphasia circumlocute, that is, find alternate ways to explain an idea that they can't express directly."

Although tDCS has been investigated extensively with regard to cognitive and memory enhancement, as well as depression and other psychological disorders, evidence of its benefits remain in question, with one meta-analysis of 59 single-session studies and 42 replicated outcomes concluding that "there appears to be no reliable effect of tDCS on executive function, language, memory or miscellaneous measures."

With few apparent negative effects, however, research continues. For example, a recent study showed potential benefits for patients with mental health disorders, including autism and schizophrenia, as reported by Medscape Medical News.

Potential for Broad Application

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Mark A. Runco, PhD, the E. Paul Torrance Professor of Creativity Studies at the University of Georgia's Torrence Creativity Center, in Athens, said the study offers valuable new insights into neuromodulation, which continues to gain interest.

"If the method is replicated, it would be of great importance. Creativity is now recognized in business, education, engineering, the sciences, everywhere, so if there is a method for fulfilling potentials, it would have broad application," he said.

"The beauty of this method is that it is fairly nonintrusive, and yet it is also unlikely that benefits reflect any 'halo effects,' such as an impact via more creative attitudes," he added.

Although the field continues to face unique challenges, studies such as this new research help push the field forward, Dr Runco said.

"Creativity is in fact among the most difficult of scientific targets. That's why it took so long for neuroscientists to look to creativity. Now they are doing good work, but the results each represent one small step ― small because limited assessments are employed, and samples, or effects, vary from sample to sample. In short, this research represents a small step, but an interesting step."

The study was supported by awards from the National Science Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences via Georgetown Howard Universities Center for Clinical and Translational Science, and Pymetrics. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr Runco has written several books on creativity and is editor of the Creativity Research Journal.

Cereb Cortex. Published online April 13, 2016. Abstract

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