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DIY Brain Zapping Meets the World of Internet Marketing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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tDCS for consumers (not just hipsters)

Going back a couple of millenia, Scribonius Largus, Pliny the Elder and Galen of Pergamum were all avid proponents of using the electric currents produced by torpedo fish to treat headaches.

Physician Ibn Sidah tried to apply electric catfish to the forehead for epilepsy in the eleventh century.

If these esteemed historical figures were still around, they might be forking over bitcoins to buy transcranial direct current stimulators for treating patients—or, rather, for helping them  become better gamers or improve their math or memory skills

Until now, brain zapping—to treat Parkinson’s, depression or other illnesses (not for cognitive enhancement)—required drilling a hole in the head, submitting oneself to powerful shocks that left blanks in memory or going to a hospital to get treatment with a technology that is  far too expensive for the average  consumer to ever pick up at Best Buy.

At least on paper, times have changed. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) seems to solve all the problems that usually come with trying to take control of the television picture inside your head. It doesn’t require a hole in the skull. It seems relatively safe and you can order a kit (or an assembled device) from various places on the Internet for a few hundred dollars, maybe less.

A great article in Neuron, from which the factoids about the ancients were filched, talks about the phenomenon of tDCS in the media and academic literature. The article documents that hundreds of academic articles and dozens of print media offerings in 2013 chronicled the arrival of a new techno-obsession that has the potential to rival Google Glass as a new electronic device capable of messing with your head.

tDCS is supposed to work by using a weak electrical current—the nine-volt batteries you use in your smoke alarm—to ratchet up or dial down the activity of brain cells, maybe by facilitating a process of altering the proteins that populate the synapses, the connection points between neurons, all of which may enhance  learning. At least that’s one idea, but the people who study the technology are not really sure yet.

Even so, this is already the stuff of great “head” lines: “Brainwave is a breakthrough,” Zap yourself out of depression,” “Electric zap stops migraines,” (pace Pliny). The technology has also gained a reputation for enhancing mental activity in “normals”: “Little brain zap, big memory boost,” Zapping brain boosts math skills,” “Got a problem—put your electrical thinking cap on.”

Of course, the first question is whether it’s safe. No one knows with certainty  and a New York Times article had quotes from a bunch of experts who were wringing their hands over whether it might do harm. But we’re talking here about really weak currents. If these currents really work, you might get almost as much of a mental boost by brushing with an electric toothbrush for 10 or 20 minutes. The more important question might be whether it does anything at all other than tweak the brain’s innate powers to induce a placebo effect.

I asked the University of Toronto’s Andres Lozano, a leader in development of the invasive deep-brain stimulation technology for Parkinson’s and other disorders about what he thought about tDCS. This is what he told me:

“The risks are relatively low because the currents used are small.  The real risk is that the utility of these therapies is unproven and the regulation of its use is sub-optimal.  It creates false hopes and makes people invest their time and resources on something of questionable and uncertain value.  All of this could be resolved and we could get to the bottom of this matter by conducting appropriate sham-controlled clinical trials.”

What is more interesting, for sure, is the sociological phenomenon—the persistent desire for some kind of techno-talisman that will cure all ills while doing no harm. (They could sell these things at showings of “Lucy,” the movie.) Usually, there’s no free lunch, though. As with pharmaceuticals, if a device causes any changes at all, there’s usually some untoward side effects.

Maybe the biggest benefit may be to Google’s marketing of its much-touted “Glass” headgear. The tDCS as a fashion accessory looks so much geekier than Glass that maybe it will help ease acceptance of Google’s idea for the Next Big Thing.

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Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. WastedEnthusiasm 5:24 pm 07/28/2014

    I built a functioning TDCS device after listening to a Radiolab podcast dedicated to it. The total cost was around 40 bucks. If you want to know how, I can point you in the right direction.

    Link to this
  2. 2. mjasko1 8:10 pm 07/28/2014

    It will be interesting to see how TMS ( magnetic Stimulation) can be included in this approach to effecting our brains ability to function

    Link to this
  3. 3. hkraznodar 2:53 pm 08/25/2014

    Buy a wool sweater, wool socks and a wool rug. Cheaper and looks much less moronic. You also get the ability to feed in power in different configurations based on where you touch a ground wire to your head.

    As far as treating headaches with it, if you don’t get migraines, just read up on types and causes of headaches and treat the underlying causes and stop getting headaches. If you do get migraines talk to a doctor because I haven’t found anything other than that where anyone gets meaningful results.

    A fun part of learning to eliminate my headaches was learning to cause them. I suggest avoiding that with migraines. Like I said, migraines need a professional.

    Link to this

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