Body Odd

A zap to the brain makes you think people are more attractive

June 21, 2013 at 4:57 PM ET

Kate Upton attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit
Charles Sykes / AP
Most of us can't actually be as attractive as professional good-looking people like Kate Upton. But new research shows that an electrical shock to the brain can make people perceive other people to be more attractive. The research may one day point toward new treatments for neurological disorders like depression or Parkinson's.

Another workday with your drab, dull-looking coworkers. If only your world was filled with the beautiful people - more Kate Uptons than Katie from accounting, more Jon Hamms than John from HR.

Actually, technology exists that could almost make that possible -- provided you're OK with an electric shock to your brain. But the brain zap isn't some party game. Findings from a new California Institute of Technology study could one day help lead to new, noninvasive ways to study and treat mental disorders.

The Caltech researchers found that people who receive a mild electrical shock deep within the brain ranked people as more attractive than they did before the jolt. It might sound like a silly thing to study, but Vikram Chib, lead author of the paper, explains that rating the attractiveness of faces is one of the hallmark tasks used to diagnose neurological problems like depression, schizophrenia or Parkinson's.

Chib, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech, wanted to know how an area nestled deep with the brain called the midbrain influenced mood and behavior, and if there were a way to manipulate it noninvasively. The midbrain is believed to be the source of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease. While drugs do treat these disorders, Chib and his colleague, Shinsuke Shimojo, hoped that noninvasive deep brain stimulation could change only the midbrain, without influencing the entire body.

The duo used a brain scanner called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to take photos of the 99 study participants' brains as they were asked to rank the attractiveness of faces, both before and after undergoing 15 minutes of electrical stimulation. The stimulation was from something called a transcranial direct-current-stimulation (tDCS) -- it's an inexpensive, noninvasive way to stimulate the brain using electrodes placed on the scalp. The tDCS only uses a 9-volt battery, and the jolt isn't painful -- it feels like a little tingle, or an itch.

Because of the fMRI images, the researchers were able to see what happens in the brain as people examine faces for attractiveness. After the zap, Chib and Shimojo saw increased activity in the brain's prefrontal area and in the midbrain, and they saw a boost of dopamine - something that has already been shown to make people perceive others as more attractive, Chib explains.

Translational Psychiatry
Vikram Chib / Translational Psychiatry
These fMRI images from the Translational Psychiatry paper show the region of the brain that was stimulated with the mild electric shock. After the stimulation, the images show increased midbrain activity that is linked with attractiveness ratings.

Dr. Donald Malone, who is chair of psychology and psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic and was not involved in this research, says this research is important: “This article has showed a relatively small stimulation to a certain part of the front of the brain activated a circuit deep within the brain and we can see it on a fMRI. And also resulted in behavioral changes. It is pretty cool.”

But he says this isn’t the first time researchers learned that noninvasive stimulation impacts the midbrain and dopamine. Electroconvulsive therapy, (ECT) what most know as shock therapy, treats depression with a strong jolt, but remains stigmatized. And transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been known to work the same way as tDCS, but relies on magnets instead of electrical shocks. With ECT and TMS, the treatments are only effective if they are continued indefinitely.

Up next, Chib plans to continue to research brain stimulation, specifically the way it may influence people with neurological or psychiatric disorders like Parkinson's, schizophrenia and depression. The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.



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