Exercise and electric brain stimulation boost learning: study

If you're trying to master a skill, a new study says that using a 'cross-training' regimen may help improve your ability to learn versus solo cognitive training. The study calls this multimodal training, and explains that it 'significantly enhanced learning' among volunteers who participated in the study. Best of all, the method doesn't require any nootropics or otherwise invasive measures.

The study evaluated a total of 318 young adults, all of whom are described as having been healthy over the course of the research. These volunteers were slotted into one of five different experimental groups, one that received only cognitive training on a computer, one that added physical training to the cognitive training, yet another that added non-invasive brain stimulation into the mix, plus active control and passive control groups.

The study's goal was to discover whether adding physical exercise and/or electric stimulation to a cognitive-based training approach could boost someone's ability to learn new skills. While past studies have looked into the potentially beneficial effects physical exercise can have on cognitive abilities, this study tosses in a newer, more futuristic element: the use of non-invasive brain stimulation via a transcranial direct current stimulation device — that is, a tDCS headset.

The use of tDCS units has become increasingly popular over the years, and we've seen some consumer models appear on the market, though many of these devices still appear to be of the DIY sort (the latter of which are not without their risks, so be sure to educate yourself before attempting to make your own unit). Many studies have demonstrated various degrees of benefit from these devices, though others have been less optimistic.

In the case of this study, the researchers saw improvements to learning when physical exercise was coupled with cognitive training, as well as when electric brain stimulation was added into the mix. Concluding the findings, the study says:

Our findings demonstrate that multimodal training significantly enhanced learning (relative to computer-based cognitive training alone) and provided an effective method to promote skill learning across multiple cognitive domains, spanning executive functions, working memory, and planning and problem solving.

You can read the full study in Nature here.