The brain’s natural communication protocol
Your brain is essentially an electrical grid. As you read this, you are producing electrical activity in various brain regions as part of the mental process. Neurostimulators like Plato work by adding a micro-dose of electricity similar to that of the brain’s natural processes. This temporarily changes the type and location of the natural activity. The modulation only influences the already ongoing processes, leaving it unable to add any unnatural activity.
Plato neurostimulation works by applying two matchstick-box sized electrodes to the surface of the head, sending micro currents from one electrode to the other. Passing through the two electrodes is a constant, low-intensity current that modulates neuronal activity in the underlying areas. The user may determine the strength of that access based on the type of stimuli. Lasting up to 30 minutes, a neurostimulation session has the maximum effect during the session. However, some users report lagging effects hours after the session has ended.
The origins of neurostimulation technology is from medical research, used for purposes such as memory training and rehabilitation for stroke patients. More recently, the technology has been used for pilot education, military training and for professional athletes, amongst other purposes.
Health and Safety
In correct use neurostimulators like Plato are completely safe to use. Some studies report mild, but transient side effects, primarily skin irritations beneath the electrodes, cognitive discomfort (e.g. moderate fatigue, headache and nausea) and metallic taste in the mouth. Only very few of the 100+ tests of Plato have resulted in skin irritations, sleepiness and, in three instances, mild headache. The best results from neurostimulation studies are from repeated use, thus the only known habituation effect is related to improvement. Based on our own experience, getting captivated by successful neurostimulation is easy, but research shows no signs of challenges related to physical addiction.
Creativity skills lie at the heart of innovation
At Plato we are experts on creativity research, and through the Copenhagen Institute of NeuroCreativity we have been working with creativity research and training for nearly a decade. Based on our own and others research on creativity and creative problem solving, we have designed two neurostimulation protocols used in Plato, targeting the two most important aspects of creativity: The ability to think out of the box (Open mode, illustrated to the right) and the ability to assess, filter and select (Close mode, illustrated below).
But what exactly do we mean by creativity? To us, creativity is the most miraculous part of humanity and what separates us from animals. Creativity is the key human skill that keeps evolving us. From mastering fire and a rolling wheel, to electricity and the computer, all human creations departs from this very particular skill of connecting existing knowledge in new and useful ways.
At Plato creativity is not about artistic skills, but the cognitive ability to create new and useful ideas and solutions. In our point of view, creativity is the key to developmental breakthroughs within any field. What is the difference between a good and a groundbreaking mathematician? Creativity, as they both have access to the same information, yet one is able to see solutions that the other cannot. How did David beat Goliath and the Greek capture Troy? It all came from creative thinking.
Testing of Plato
The Plato team is using our prototypes all the time, but more importantly 60+ people – and counting – have tried it in more than 100 sessions. As we are scientists, it has been crucial for us to also do rigorous tests of Plato. This scientific research so far consist of 76 experiments on 39 subjects in a controlled laboratory environment, administrated by neurobiologist Morten Friis-Olivarius.
The studies were performed with Plato prototypes, utilising a form for neurostimulation known as tDCS (transcranial Direct Current Stimulation). The data was collected in two batches (33 sessions on 17 subjects and 43 sessions on 24 subjects), using two different sets of classical cognitive tests designed to capture aspects of creative thinking. Apart from basic device feedback, qualitative feedback and logging of side-effects, the study was analysed to understand how the stimuli affected the research subjects.
The results in terms of the device and side effects were great. Also the qualitative results were very positive, as the subject were able to report the expected cognitive effects despite not being aware of which stimuli they received. Unfortunately, the effect measured by the quantitative tests varied greatly between participants, with some having very strong positive effects while others had little or no effect. This variance is believed to caused by a crucial factor in neurostimulation: individual differences in how people are affected by tDCS.
The Plato team honours transparency and scientific honesty. We will never give the impression that our device is able to do things it cannot: Neurostimulation works, yet it is not magic. It is vital for us to be fully open about what we know and what we do not. The workings of neurostimulation are highly complex and, consequently, predicting the precise effect on an individual is therefore virtually impossible — no matter how many subjects are scientifically studied. Therefore, the individual effect of neurostimulation, like the tDCS used in Plato experiments, may vary.
The reason for this is easy to explain:
Each brain is unique
Through neuroscientific research we collect data, which tells us how the brain functions on average. We then use neurostimulation to recreate brain activity based on that average, which is the effect most people are likely to experience. However, using an average has the same drawback as in any other scientific field: As there are no identical brains, no brain will exactly match the identified average. We are therefore able to predict a range of possible reactions to brain stimulation, while unable to provide an accurate and fully predictable technique. As a result, the more complex cognitive functions that are targeted with neurostimulation, the bigger is the potential impact of the individual differences.
The brain does not consist of concrete areas specifically responsible for a given function. Various areas play different roles at different points during a cognitive process, which together makes up the complex system we refer to as “the brain”. We do not simply turn on and off areas of the brain in order to reach a predefined result.
When applying neurostimulation to the surface of the skull there are three key individual factors that influences the effect of the stimuli. Simply put, these three factors are:
- Anatomical differences, as a location on the outside of the skull does not necessarily match the assumed underlying area of the brain
- Individual differences in exactly how we all use different areas of the brain for different purposes
- Individual differences in exactly how the brain is “folded”. The current induced takes the path of least resistance between the electrodes. This path depends on how the brain is folded
These challenges related to individual differences are in line with what is considered a scientific consensus for neurostimulation. Dr. Flavio Frohlich, another scientist using tDCS neurostimulation, sums up a study by stating:
“This is not a conclusive study saying tDCS does this or that, but it tells us that it is probably more complicated than we initially assumed; that it requires more work to understand under what specific circumstance tDCS enhances, or, perhaps in some circumstance also decreases, cognitive performance” (source)
A growing amount of scientific research is carried out in an open collaborative fashion known as “citizen science” or simply crowdscience. Crowdscience goes beyond traditionally organised research – from its firm place within universities, government laboratories and R&D departments, to massive distributed research.
For Plato, this means that we are bringing the lab to the user, instead of bringing the user to the lab. Together, we enhance our understanding of the brain and continually refine the neurostimulation technology and features through collective feedback. Hence, crowdscience involves all Plato users, which collectively progresses our shared knowledge.
More about crowdscience
Through our long-term perspectives for crowdscience, we aim at building a platform for neurostimulation users and researchers. In order to accelerate our understanding of neurostimulation, data will be collected, analysed and shared worldwide. For example, for neurostimulation technology to move beyond infancy, it is crucial to gain information on how real-world users benefit from the technology. And no matter how many tests we run in our lab, we still need to know how users adopt our product to their daily and professional life.
The Plato crowdscience will be performed on three levels, advancing gradually as part of the Pioneer Program:
- Passive usage data, collecting information about how and when it is used by which type of users
- Active reporting, where users will be invited to report the experiences from each session directly in the app, so we can add both qualitative and quantitative data to the passive usage data.
- Distributed science, where Plato users will be invited to participate in controlled scientific experiments, using their own device and in the comfort of their own context.
Crowdscience is a tool of mutual aid: The more you share your experiences with Plato, the more knowledge we gain in order to improve the underlying science. And the more we collectively share, the more information is available to improve each user’s experience.