♫MUSIC♫ ROB REINHART: Let’s put the cap on… MILES O’BRIEN: We all heard it in elementary school, “Time to put your thinking caps on.” Soon, maybe we really will. GEOFF WOODMAN: Because we’re being equipped with an ever increasingly large arsenal of tools that we can use to understand the brain. And, we can get electrodes into the brain and eavesdrop on individual neurons. MILES O’BRIEN: Initial support from the National Science Foundation allowed psychologist Geoff Woodman and his team at Vanderbilt University to study memory and perception. Then, they found that electrical stimulation in certain parts of the brain can boost learning and improve decision-making. GEOFF WOODMAN: We’ve shown that if we stimulate over what scientists call the medial frontal cortex – which is essentially here – what we can do is make subjects learn faster. MILES O’BRIEN: Rob Reinhart showed us how their experiment works. After attaching electrodes to her head and face, they stimulate Laura’s brain with electricity for 20 minutes. The levels are not dangerous – about the same strength as a 9-volt battery. LAURA MCCLENAHAN: It feels maybe like a mild itching or tingling sensation. It’s not painful at all. You get used to it really fast. MILES O’BRIEN: Researchers monitor her brainwaves as she takes a test on a computer. It’s similar to a video game with lots of trial and error choices – designed so she learns from her mistakes. ROB REINHART: We can track your brain activities on the fly while you’re performing this task, while you’re learning, making errors, slowing down after errors, doing all those things that we’re interested in measuring. MILES O’BRIEN: In more than five-dozen people tested, the results were clear. Three quarters of them showed strong positive effects from the precisely targeted electrical stimulation. [SCHOOL BELL RINGS] So, could a daily charge help us ace a test? Pilot an airplane? Transplant a heart? GEOFF WOODMAN: We did find that the effects lasted for about five hours. That gets you through a significant portion of the day or maybe an important, you know, trans-Atlantic flight. MILES O’BRIEN: Brain stimulation may also help people with psychiatric disorders. GEOFF WOODMAN: Some of our more recent work has been in collaboration with people who study schizophrenia, and we’ve seen that with this same sort of brain stimulation that causes people without this disorder to learn more quickly that we can provide some sort of treatment for their underlying disorders. MILES O’BRIEN: Woodman says their “thinking cap” won’t be ready for widespread use for some time. They want to rule out any possible long-term side effects. But for now, it’s certainly a technology worth concentrating on. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.