What’s one more slice of pie? Nutritionally, probably a few hundred more calories. But to neuroscientists, it’s a deficiency in the “braking” system located in the brain’s right inferior frontal cortex (rIFC), which regulates self-control. Wouldn’t it be nice if scientists had a way to externally enhance that braking system — thereby taking the “self” out of self-control? As a proof of principle, with the help of electrical brain stimulation (EBS), such a future is already here.

Although the neuroscientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center and the University of San Diego admit victims of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette syndrome (TS) shouldn’t expect EBS to reduce their suffering anytime soon, their latest study shows the procedure works. When the team performed a double-blind administration of EBS to people told to exercise self-control, the electrical pulses directly pumped the cognitive brakes. Progress may not be on treatment’s doorstep, but it has located the right address.

"There is a circuit in the brain for inhibiting or braking responses," Dr. Nitin Tandon, the study's senior author and associate professor at the UTHealth Medical School, said in a statement. "We believe we are the first to show that we can enhance this braking system with brain stimulation."

Introducing EBS to people who suffer from severe disorders of self-control is still far away due to the sheer invasiveness of the procedure. Currently, advanced forms of epilepsy are the only disorders for which doctors feel safe implanting electrodes in patients’ scalps. Subsequent tests of EBS would need to prove TS, OCD, and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) benefit from the treatment to advance the technique to more serious applications.

The present study involved a small-scale application, Tandon explained. What was especially innovative, however, was the team’s use of EBS. While prior studies have typically disrupted brain function with the electrical pulses, he and his colleagues were able to avoid this disruption, indeed enhancing some of the processes to motivate self-control. Outside of its medical application, if the technique were harnessed properly, Tandon said, it could even reduce the everyday cravings to which we so often succumb.

"Our daily life is full of occasions when one must inhibit responses,” said the researcher, who has been studying self-control for five years with colleagues at USD. “For example, one must stop speaking when it's inappropriate to the social context and stop oneself from reaching for extra candy.”

And while the latest installment of his research included only four participants — a sample size too small to draw any conclusions — the principle of EBS for self-control regulation has demonstrated success. For now, Tandon explained, that was the goal.

“Importantly, the results extend this causal role beyond externally-driven stopping to goal-driven inhibitory control, which is a richer model of human self-control,” the team concluded. “These results also provide the first demonstration of double-blind chronometric [EBS] of human prefrontal cortex, and suggest that — in the case of rIFC — this could lead to augmentation of motor braking.”

Source: Wessel J, Connor C, Aron A, Tandon N. Chronometric Electrical Stimulation of Right Inferior Frontal Cortex Increases Motor Braking. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2013.