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Bad habits? This tech predicts impulsive behavior, zaps your brain to stop it

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Whether it’s having that extra drink when we shouldn’t, a momentary burst of anger that we later regret, or something else, plenty of us have had “moments of weakness” when we’re temporarily overcome by some burst of impulsive behavior. How good would it be in that scenario to have someone looking out for your best interests, so that you don’t make a potentially damaging mistake? Well, move over Jiminy Cricket, because researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine may have come up with the perfect solution — and it’s a quick jolt of targeted electricity to the brain.

In a study, Stanford researchers found that there is a characteristic electrical activity pattern in a certain part of the brain that predicts impulsive actions just prior to them occurring. This electrical activity pattern is the same in the brain of both a mouse that has learned to binge eat fatty food or a human anticipating a large cash reward, as they would if they were gambling. In an experiment with the mice, the investigators found that giving a small electrical pulse to the brain region known as the nucleus accumbens — the hub of the brain’s reward circuitry — immediately after the electrical signature has manifested is enough to stop the mice from overindulging. It did not affect their ability to eat food regularly, their social behavior, or any other physical activity.

“This is the first example in a translatable setting that we could use a brain machine interface to sense a vulnerable moment in time and intervene with a therapeutic delivery of electrical stimulation,” Dr. Casey Halpern, assistant professor of neurosurgery, told Digital Trends. “This may be transformative for severely disabling impulse control disorders.”

Going forward, the researchers think the technology could be used effectively for human subjects. It might, Halpern said, be useful for dealing with issues such as “obesity that has failed all treatments, including gastric bypass surgery, and life-threatening addictions.” While it’s not clear how many people would be happy to have their brains electrified at frequent intervals, so-called responsive neurostimulation devices are already being used for people partial-onset epilepsy. That treatment similarly involves sensing specific electrical activity signatures and then zapping it with electricity.

According to Halpern, the researchers are currently waiting on National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding in order to carry out a first in-man study.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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