This post is from the first issue of Substrates, a neuroscience magazine from the CUNY Neuroscience Collaborative. The first issue will be online in late January. Up-to-date info can be found at our Facebook or Twitter pages. Enjoy!
By Miguel Briones
Scientific advancement is known to spill over into the general public, but in today’s internet driven media culture, it’s easier than ever for the people to pick up on a scientific trend. Take, for example, the emergence of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as a way to improve cognitive abilities. tDCS is a form of stimulation that uses a constant, low current that is delivered to a specific brain area using electrodes, and neuroscientists have begun to investigate the effects of low current stimulation in hopes of further understanding brain functioning and possibly use it in therapeutic intervention.
Recently, tDCS has picked up steam in the media. Radiolab, in a podcast titled “9-volt Nirvana,” sat down with Neuroscientist Michael Weisend and talked about how tDCS works, while even giving a demonstration on Dr. Weisend’s own brain. Sally Adee, in the New Scientist, writes that tDCS improved her ability to focus. Even the BBC, in an article titled “’Human enhancement’ comes a step closer,” discussed the ramifications of tDCS stimulation on the general public, with such questions as whether it should be used on children and if everyone would have the opportunity to use it or would it be available only to those who could afford it.
All of this speculation has fueled the emergence of online DIY communities dedicated to helping others stimulate their own brain. The transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) subreddit, an online forum where people post and answer questions related to at-home brain stimulation, is one of many popping up in response to the rise of brain science in popular culture. “Using a few milliamps of current to stimulate your brain – a thinking cap” reads the forum’s description. A quick browse through some of the questions posted online reveal this: “Does anybody use tDCS while studying?” “Has anyone seen mood improvements?” “What kit or setups is everyone using? “ Some of the questions get more technical, such as “For anodal stimulation of F3, do you personally place the cathode over fp2 or over the shoulder?” Others, however, range from the clueless, “What’s the salt in the saline solution for?” to the downright dangerous, “Serious burn using electrodes?” Even commenters offer bits of advice. In response to the saline question, some commenters wrote “If salt accumulates in an area of the sponge, it can create a hotspot and cause irritation or a burn. There’s adequate electrolytes in tap water.”
The how-to guide on the tDCs subreddit explains that all a person needs are a handful tools that can be found at a hardware store and the abilities to solder, sew, and “a strong analytical mind to interpret research papers.” By following the instructions, anyone should be able to make their own setup. And if that’s not up your alley, companies have started marketing an already built at home brain stimulator. For $90, anyone can buy The Brain Stimulator, a small personal tDCS stimulator. The website gives advice on what electrodes to use and advertises positive testimonials, all while stating on their store page, in bright red letters, “…The Brain Stimulator does not claim to diagnose, assist, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition or ailment. By using this site you gree to these terms, and using the device you do so at your own risk.”
But does tDCS actually work? Researchers have found evidence of improvement in mathematical reasoning, language learning, perception, working memory, error detection, and motor skill acquisition. Scientists have noted that tDCS won’t make a person superhuman, but it’ll help a person’s brain reach its full potential. Research has also found strong effects in clinical settings, especially in depression. When comparing an antidepressant with tDCS stimulation, researchers found that both equally improved depressive symptoms in patients. When combined, however, both groups exhibited even less symptoms of depression. Yet, the biggest criticism against tDCS stimulation is that neurobiological effects of tDCS are unknown. Those who are skeptical are waiting to see just how does the brain improve or recover itself in a biological sense. On top of that, many scientists won’t accept the idea that something as simple as passing electrical current could yield such improvements. Scientists warn about the use of tDCS at home. Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, a scientist at the University of Oxford, in an interview with BBC, states “You can use stimulation that might not be beneficial for you, you need to know how long to stimulate, at what time to stimulate and what intensity to use.”
Even so, the communities are still growing. With the promise of improved memory, reasoning, and mental health; it’s no wonder more and more people are self-stimulating their brains. But as much as people want to believe in the powers of tDCS, the research is still inconclusive, and an even bigger issue is presented as a disclaimer in the tDCS how-to guide. At the very bottom, the author writes, “I’m not an expert and don’t know what I’m doing.”
It is important to distinguish between tDCS, a well-defined, safe technique used in clinical research, with “tDCS”, the assortment of technqiues and devices discussed here. To learn more about tDCS, check out the NYC Neuromodulation 2015 conference, Jan 9-11 at CUNY. Neuromodec.com
More information can be found at neuralengr.com :