Skip to main content
Move the World.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Device

Lead Image Courtesy of Leonard Lab / UCSF / Jhia Louise Nicole Jackson

Learning new languages as an adult is notoriously difficult, but scientists say a new earbud-like device could change that.

The device works by imperceptibly stimulating the longest nerve that extends out from the brain (scientifically called the vagus nerve). And while its creators aren't entirely certain how their vagus nerve stimulation device helps with language learning, they do believe it could open up opportunities for all kinds of learning.

A Non-Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation Device

A new study, conducted by researchers at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and University of Pittsburgh, reveals that the earbud can make it easier for adults to recognize foreign language tones, a task that is notoriously difficult for English speakers.

The study tested the earbud's ability to help English-speaking adults learn how to identify Mandarin's four "tones" — pitch changes used to distinguish between otherwise identical-sounding words.

The researchers found that the vagus nerve stimulation device improved performance by 13% when volunteers attempted to distinguish between two of the tones — ones generally considered easier for non-Mandarin speakers to identify — compared to participants who didn't receive any stimulation.

It also helped learners reach "peak performance" at identifying those tones twice as quickly.

The researchers suspect that the stimulation might enhance the signaling of neurotransmitters, temporarily boosting the wearer's attention to the audio, but they'll need to conduct additional studies to confirm that suspicion.

They also plan to test whether longer sessions with the vagus nerve stimulation device can significantly improve the ability to distinguish between two tones that are more difficult for non-Mandarin speakers to identify, which it failed to do in the initial study.

Language Learning and Beyond

The potential applications for this vagus nerve stimulation device aren't limited to language learning, according to the researchers.

"One of the most surprising things about our results is that we saw such a dramatic improvement for a classically difficult task: language learning in adults," researcher Matthew Leonard told Freethink. "So I think there is great promise for this technology to be used in a wide array of learning tasks."

vagus nerve stimulation device

The electrodes in the vagus nerve stimulation device. Credit: Leonard Lab / UCSF / Jhia Louise Nicole Jackson

The device could also have applications in healthcare, where vagus nerve stimulation — usually delivered through invasive implants — is already used to treat epilepsy and depression.

"Given the non-invasive aspects, low costs, and easy set-up, we envision a very broad use of vagus nerve stimulation in rehabilitation following stroke," researcher Bharath Chandrasekaran said.

"Stimulation could be a useful adjuvant — assisting, not replacing — to traditional rehabilitation, such as speech-language therapy and physiotherapy," he continued.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Is This the End of Language Barriers?
Is This the End of Language Barriers?
Watch Now
Is This the End of Language Barriers?
What if you could travel anywhere in the world and there was no language barrier?
Watch Now

Real-time translation seeks to break down all language barriers in the world. Several tech companies believe they are on the verge of making this a reality through new devices such as Google's Pixel Bud headphones, which can translate up to 40 languages in one to two seconds. While the technology is still a work in progress, Google and others hope it might not be long before such technologies can help connect the world...

Missing Words
A Language Goes Extinct Every Two Weeks. Here’s a Plan to Save Them.
A Language Goes Extinct Every Two Weeks. Here’s a Plan to Save Them.
Missing Words
A Language Goes Extinct Every Two Weeks. Here’s a Plan to Save Them.
Volunteers worldwide are documenting the world's rarest languages in a project called Wikitongues.

Volunteers worldwide are documenting the world's rarest languages in a project called Wikitongues. Over a thousand volunteers (and counting) from around the world make videos of people speaking their native language — introducing themselves, providing an oral history, or just talking about their culture — then upload it to an online database. The archive is available on the web as a free language encyclopedia. Soon they will also be available at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Dispatches
Neuroscientists Want to Beam Experiences Directly into Your Brain
Neuroscientists Want to Beam Experiences Directly into Your Brain
Dispatches
Neuroscientists Want to Beam Experiences Directly into Your Brain
It's a breakthrough for the blind and paralyzed, not the first step toward the Matrix. (Promise.)

It's a breakthrough for the blind and paralyzed, not the first step toward the Matrix. (Promise.)

The Brain
Scientists Are Developing Brain Implants That Improve Memory
Brain Implants
The Brain
Scientists Are Developing Brain Implants That Improve Memory
New research sheds hope for sufferers of traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, and for all of us, old age.

New research sheds hope for sufferers of traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, and for all of us, old age.

Science
Could Your Brain Regenerate Like Skin?
Could Your Brain Regenerate Like Skin?
Science
Could Your Brain Regenerate Like Skin?
Brain regeneration used to be considered a medical fantasy. But research shows that fantasy could eventually become...
By Levi Gadye

Brain regeneration used to be considered a medical fantasy. But research shows that fantasy could eventually become a reality.

Dispatches
Neuroscience Has a Low-Tech Answer for a Good Night's Sleep
Neuroscience Has a Low-Tech Answer for a Good Night's Sleep
Dispatches
Neuroscience Has a Low-Tech Answer for a Good Night's Sleep
Neuroscientists say that we may be ignoring a basic fact that could defuse the "screen-time wars" between parents...
By Adriana Galván

Neuroscientists say that we may be ignoring a basic fact that could defuse the "screen-time wars" between parents and kids.

Using Neuroscience to Talk to People in a Vegetative State
What is a vegetative state?
Watch Now
Using Neuroscience to Talk to People in a Vegetative State
A scientist figures out how to talk to the brain when the body won't respond.
Watch Now

People who suffer extreme brain trauma sometimes fall into what is known as a "persistent vegetative state." What is a vegetative state and how is it different from a coma? Unlike a coma, where the patient is completely immobile and unconscious, people in a vegetative state will sleep, wake, and open their eyes — without showing any sign of awareness or consciousness. They don't speak, move on their own, or respond to...

Dope Science
One Ayahuasca Experience Could Have Lasting Effects on the Brain
ayahuasca experience
Dope Science
One Ayahuasca Experience Could Have Lasting Effects on the Brain
Researchers believe just one ayahuasca experience may be enough to have a lasting effect on the brain.

Researchers believe just one ayahuasca experience may be enough to have a lasting effect on the brain.

Prosthetics
How a Paralympic Swimmer Helps Advance AI Bionic Limbs
morgan stickney
Prosthetics
How a Paralympic Swimmer Helps Advance AI Bionic Limbs
Morgan Stickney shares about her experimental Ewing amputations and training for the 2024 Paralympics.

Morgan Stickney shares about her experimental Ewing amputations and training for the 2024 Paralympics.