Military Hopes Zapping Brains Leads to Faster Language Learning

The U.S. military is investing in research that could help accelerate language acquisition. Victor Habbick Visions/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Youth, as those of us who have spent several decades on this planet already know, is wasted on the young. Kids often see the world as one gigantic playground — one that doesn't include buzzkills like jobs and bills or the next-door neighbor who refuses to keep his front lawn in decent shape. They also have the time to learn all kinds of things that will likely make life at least a little more fun down the road, like how to play guitar or learn a new language. For the rest of us old-timers looking to take up Spanish, French or Farsi, we might be best off jamming a finger into an electrical outlet.

The U.S. Department of Defense recently handed out some $50 million in research grants to study whether electric stimulation can enhance language and other types of learning. They want to know if zapping a person in the neck will stimulate what the DOD calls "synaptic plasticity."

The bright idea focuses on peripheral nerves, which connect the brain and the spinal cord. The vagus nerve, located near the neck and stretching from the gut to the brain, is of particular interest. Some folks believe stimulating that nerve can treat depression, limit epileptic seizures, treat internal bleeding and boost immunity. The idea is that the stimulation coaxes the vagus nerve into releasing beneficial neurochemicals. That process, in turn, may generate "synaptic plasticity" allowing the junctions between nerve cells to strengthen and weaken more easily. This plasticity is believed to make it easier for people to learn new things.

Will this work? Keep an eye out for polyglots sporting fatigues over the next few years, and we may have our answer.