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1. Inside the Brain: Hacks 1–12 > 5. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: Turn On...

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: Turn On and Off Bits of the Brain

Stimulate or suppress specific regions of the brain, then sit back and see what happens.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) isn’t an imaging technique like EEG [Electroencephalogram: Getting the Big Picture with EEGs] or fMRI [Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging: The State of the Art], but it can be used along with them. TMS uses a magnetic pulse or oscillating magnetic fields to temporarily induce or suppress electrical activity in the brain. It doesn’t require large machines, just a small device around the head, and—so far as we know—it’s harmless with no aftereffects.

Neurons communicate using electrical pulses, so being able to produce electrical activity artificially has its advantages. Selected regions can be excited or suppressed, causing hallucinations or partial blindness if some part of the visual cortex is being targeted. Both uses help discover what specific parts of the brain are for. If the subject experiences a muscle twitching, the TMS has probably stimulated some motor control neurons, and causing hallucinations at different points in the visual system can be used to discover the order of processing (it has been used to discover where vision is cut out during saccades [Glimpse the Gaps in Your Vision], for example).


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