Can brain stimulation enhance physical skills?

Sending electrical impulses to specific areas of the brain can provide remarkable therapeutic benefits for many neural diseases. At ISTC the Laboratory of Electrophysiology for Translational neuroScience (LET'S) is carrying on pioneering studies on rehabilitation techniques using brain stimulation.

It is proved that if we learn to do an easy physical task (like a finger tapping sequence) our primary motor cortex area (M1) enlarges. But what happens if M1 excitability is enhanced with transcranial stimulation, a non invasive method that induces weak electrical currents in the brain? Laboratory of Electrophysiology for Translational neuroScience  (LET'S) has found that our procedural learning abilities improve. So there is a double boundary between learning processes and brain alterations: this result can have a huge impact on medical treatments, helping to find new approaches for neural disease like stroke, Alzheimer disease, multiple sclerosis and depression.

Using specific techniques developed in its Laboratory, the LET'S team aims to personalize the rehabilitation settings. In stroke patients, for example, there is often a loss of voluntary movement and a weakening of arms and legs. The functional recovery of these abilities can widely change among patients even with similar lesion impacts: LET'S is working to exploit this individually variable potential to enhance standard post-stroke therapies.

LET'S team also investigates the applications of robotic rehabilitation capable of personalizing treatments. This technique uses brain stimulation to introduce non-invasive electric signals into the brain, increasing the activity of the hemisphere affected by the stroke. Physical abilities can therefore be enhanced not only through traditional physiotherapy, but also by exploiting brain plasticity. 

Contact: Franca Tecchio

ISTC Group:  Laboratory of Electrophysiology for Translational neuroScience

Relevant Publications

Tecchio F, Zappasodi F, Assenza G, Tombini M, Vollaro S, Barbati G, Rossini PM. Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation enhances procedural consolidation, J Neurophysiol 2010; 104: 1134–1140

Tecchio F, Zappasodi F, Tombini M, Caulo M, Vernieri F, Rossini PM. Interhemispheric Asymmetry of Primary Hand Representation and Recovery after Stroke: a MEG Study, Neuroimage, 2007; 36: 1057–1064