Transdermal Electrical Neuromodulation for Performance Enhancement

Regulation of neurochemicals like norepinephrine and serotonin to treat diseases or enhance human performance is typically achieved using drugs. In stark contrast to gross pharmacological methods that generally lack circuit specificity and thereby impose unnecessary side-effects, we are developing modern digital devices and electronic methods of regulating these endogenous neurochemicals using targeted neuromodulation approaches. 

Transmission of pulsed electrical currents across the skin to peripheral or cranial nerves like the trigeminal nerve and vagus can be used to noninvasively regulate the physiological activity of several deep-brain nuclei. Some of these nuclei make up the ascending reticular activating system (RAS), which projects powerful neuromodulators like norepinephrine (NE) from the locus coeruleus (LC), acetylcholine (ACh) from pedunculopontine nuclei (PPN), and serotonin (5-HT) from raphe nuclei (RN) to vast cortical and subcortical regions of the brain to regulate arousal, sleep/wake cycles, emotions, and higher cognitive functions.

Afferents of the trigeminal, vagal, and cervical nerves transmit information to the trigeminal nuclear sensory complex (TNSC) and the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS) located in the medulla oblongata and pons of the brain stem.  These regions in turn provide direct synaptic connections to nuclei of the RAS to modulate higher brain functions. We investigate neuromodulation approaches using pulsed transdermal currents delivered at frequencies ranging from hundreds of Hz to mid-kHz in order to optimize several physical and psychological dimensions of human performance.  

Targeted Neuromodulation for Optimizing Plasticity & Enhancing Learning

Safety, Comfort, & Efficiency

The goal of this effort is to enhance performance specifically related to foreign language learning and sensorimotor skill training. Our specific task is to develop and test targeted, transdermal electrical neuromodulation protocols that utilize pulsed (0.1 Hz - 5 kHz) currents to modulate trigeminal and vagal nerve activity. This work involves the discovery and optimization of cranial nerve stimulation protocols to enhance cortical plasticity in healthy humans during active and passive visual, somatosensory, and auditory tasks. The challenge is to demonstrate physiological plasticity in adult cortex that is augmented by cranial nerve stimulation protocols, which optimize safety, comfort and efficiency (above). The key milestone will be the development of standard operating procedures for modulating trigeminal and vagal nerve activity to enhance human learning (above).

Two federally-funded postdoctoral positions are available to work on this project. See Available Positions for details.

Tuning autonomic function and psychophysiological Arousal 

Arousal x Performance Curves

For the past several years we have been testing, evaluating, and developing transdermal neurostimulation methods for optimizing performance in healthy and elite individuals. Stress and poor sleep represent two of the major causes of poor performance in these populations. We have previously shown that trigeminal and cervical nerve stimulation with mid-kHz pulsed currents can suppress physiological stress responses, as well as improve sleep quality and mood. Our current research continues to refine and develop pulsed electrical and ultrasonic neuromodulation methods of tuning arousal for performance outcomes by regulating brain circuits of the ascending RAS (reticular activating system; above). Some of our work involves studying how stimulation and suppression of noradrenergic activity can affect sleep/wake cycles, strategic decision making, vigilance/sustained attention, and sport performance.