January 7, 2013 | 1
Enhancing your level of vision on demand sounds like something out of a comic book. Superman, if you recall, had the power to turn his x-ray vision on and off like a light switch. So is x-ray vision possible? I’m sorry to say: no. The ability of our naked eyes to see through layers of objects remains an idea conjured up in the minds of science fiction writers. However, the possibility of training your brain to flip to a heightened level of visual discrimination and detection whenever you want may in fact be a reality.
Last month, researchers in Switzerland found that participants who were successfully trained to consciously up-regulate the level of activity in their early visual cortex as seen by neurofeedback on fMRI in real time were also able to voluntarily give their level of visual discrimination and detection a boost. This study may sound like science fiction but it is not. Here is how it was done.
Sixteen, young healthy participants with normal or corrected-to-normal vision were told to focus on a central fixation light while they imagined high resolution pictures of changing color, shape and intensity in a particular part of their visual field which the researchers called the target region of interest. They visualized such things as writing their name in the air, a boat sailing on the ocean, patterns of spinning wheels and spirals, a model walking down the runway or their pet. They received on-the-spot visual feedback indicating how well their visualizations were boosting their brain activity to aid in their brain training. By imagining these detailed objects, seven out of the sixteen participants were able to train themselves to consciously up-regulate activity in areas of their early visual cortex over the course of a series of separate training sessions. In essence what the participants did was learn how to jump-start their visual cortex. Once their visual cortex was held at a higher state of activity, it was more sensitive and could better detect other stimuli in the target region of interest where they projected their visualizations.
Now before you go and imagine pink elephants in your peripheral vision to keep the other team from stealing second while pitching at the next company softball game, note that really wasn’t the intention of this research. It is said that those who have suffered a stroke and are enduring visual perceptual deficiencies and visual neglect are the people who the researchers intended to benefit from this work.
Still, the idea of being able to amp up the baseline activity of the visual cortex in order to be better prepared to notice something else in your vision is really intriguing to me. It reminds me of when I was in elementary school and teachers would tell us to put our ‘thinking caps’ on. Could trying to consciously control our state of awareness and alertness really turn us into better stimulus detectors and could this work for other senses? If one imagines music, could that enhance our auditory sensitivity?
Well, researchers are investigating whether or not real time fMRI feedback training can be used to dampen auditory overactivity in patients with chronic tinnitus. Similar to the visual perception experiment, in 2010 Haller et al. used neurofeedback training through real time fMRI on six participants with chronic tinnitus in order to try to teach them to voluntarily lessen brain activity in their auditory cortex. Two out of the six participants were successfully trained to be able to control and reduce the level of activity in their auditory cortex and they reported an improvement in tinnitus symptoms.
More research needs to be done to fully investigate and understand the potential of real time fMRI neurofeedback training but it has given hope to many. It perhaps is very comforting to think that certain ailments may have the possibility of being even mildly alleviated with the age-old adage of ‘mind over matter.’
Haller S, Birbaumer N, Veit R. Real-time fMRI feedback training may improve chronic tinnitus. Eur Radiology. 2010 Mar; 20 (3): 696-703. doi: 10.1007/s00330-009-1595-z
Scharnowski F, Hutton C, Josephs O, Weiskopf N, Reese G. Improving Visual Perception through Neurofeedback. J Neurosci.2012 Dec 5; 32(40): 17830-41. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6334-11.2012.
Photo credits: eye and Beverly (by Fran Priestly/stockxchng photo), author pic (by Erica Angiolillo/Gotcha! By Erica)