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Earbud-like device claims to boost linguistic skills by zapping your ear

A small device that ‘zaps the ear’ to trigger nerves in the brain that hold the key to learning languages has been developed and it could improve your language skills. 

The simple gadget dramatically improves the wearer’s ability to learn new words, say the University of Pittsburgh team behind the research new development.

The painless technique called tVNS (transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation) may also be applied to other forms of education beyond learning a new language.

Electrical currents are sent through the ear and led to English speakers distinguishing Mandarin sounds more easily – and picked up some twice as quickly.

It was achieved through precisely timed stimulation of the vagus nerve – the longest of the 12 cranial nerves connecting the brain to the rest of the body.

Lead author Dr Fernando Llanos, of the University of Pittsburgh, said this discovery opens the door to improving cognitive performance for a range of areas. 

Mandarin is considered one of the hardest languages to learn, the authors said, due to distinctive changes in pitch, called ‘tones’ that change the meaning of words that would otherwise sound the same. 

Senior author Dr Matthew Leonard, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, said this was one of the first demonstrations that a non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation can enhance a complex cognitive skill. 

The device is placed in the outer ear and activates the nerve using unnoticeable pulses to stimulate one of its nearby branches.

In the study 36 participants were trained to identify the four tones of Mandarin Chinese in examples of natural speech.

The 18 who received tVNS showed quick improvements in the two easiest tones. 

By the end they were 13 per cent better on average than those not receiving tVNS and reached peak performance twice as fast.

This was compared to the other half who acted as controls who wore the device – but never received stimulation.

Co author Bharath Chandrasekaran, said: ‘There is a general feeling people can’t learn the sound patterns of a new language in adulthood, but our work historically has shown that’s not true for everyone.

‘In this study, we are seeing that tVNS reduces those individual differences more than any other intervention I’ve seen.’

It may level the playing field for those who find learning languages particularly hard. 

‘In general, people tend to get discouraged by how hard language learning can be, but if you could give someone 13 per cent to 15 per cent better results after their first session, maybe they’d be more likely to want to continue,’ said Leonard.

The researchers are now testing whether longer training sessions can impact on the ability to discriminate the two hardest tones which weren’t particularly well improved during the original study.

Stimulation of the vagus nerve has been used to treat epilepsy for decades. 

It has recently been linked to benefits for a wide range of issues ranging from depression to inflammatory disease but the reasons remain unclear, authors said.

Most of these findings have used invasive forms of stimulation involving an impulse generator implanted in the chest.

By contrast, the ability to evoke significant boosts to learning using simple, non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation could lead to significantly cheaper and safer clinical and commercial applications.

The researchers suspect tVNS boosts learning by broadly enhancing neurotransmitter signaling.

Chandrasekaran said they were showing robust learning effects in a completely non-invasive and safe way – making the technology scalable to a range of consumer and medical uses such as rehabilitation after a stroke.

‘Our next step is to understand the underlying neural mechanism and establish the ideal set of stimulation parameters that could maximize brain plasticity.’

‘We view tVNS as a potent tool that could enhance rehabilitation in individuals with brain damage.’  

The findings of the study have been published in the journal Science of Learning.

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