When Nathan Whitmore first tapped on his brain, he had a college friend with him who was willing to pull the cord if he had a seizure. That didn't happen. Instead, Whitmore began to experiment with power surges and liked the effects. Since that first cautious attempt, he has become a frequent user and advocate of home brain stimulators.
Depending on where he placed the electrodes, Whitmore says it expanded his memory, improved his math skills, and solved previously difficult problems. The 22-year-old, a researcher in a neuroscience lab at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, writes computer programs in his spare time. When he places an electrode at a point on his forehead, his brain goes into a "flux state," he says, where complicated coding solutions seem easy. "It's like the programming of the computer itself."
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Whitmore no longer asks a friend to tag along while in the pocket, but he's far from alone. The movement to use electricity to alter the brain, while still relatively small, appears to be growing, as evidenced by a steady increase in active participants in an online brain hacking message board moderated by Whitmore. This do-it-yourself community, some of whom make their own devices, includes people who want to score better on tests or crush the competition in video games, as well as people who struggle with depression and chronic pain, Whitmore says. .
Depending on how it is delivered, electricity can have profound effects on the brain. All of the methods listed below, except deep brain stimulation, involve the external placement of electrodes or magnets.
deep brain stimulation
Electrodes surgically implanted in a patient's brain generate impulses that can regulate faulty brain circuits, such as those that fail in Parkinson's disease. Some doctors are trying DBS to treat depression, epilepsy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Transcranial direct current stimulation
The electrodes are placed on the scalp and send a weak electrical current (usually 1 to 2 milliamps) to the brain. Depending on the location and type of stimulation, users can impair working memory, attention, or math skills. Depression and chronic pain can also be reduced, some studies suggest.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
A coil of wire held next to the head creates a magnetic field that triggers electrical currents in the brain. TMS has shown promise as a way to treat psychiatric disorders and provide cognitive stimuli. The Food and Drug Administration has OK versions of TMS for depression and migraines.
Once the patient is under anesthesia and a muscle relaxant is administered to prevent movement, electrodes are attached to the head to send a current of approximately 500 to 900 milliamps through the brain, triggering a brief seizure. ECT is used to treat major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Illustrations: James Provost
As reckless as it sounds to squeeze a brain at home with a 9-volt battery and $40 worth of spare parts, the buzz around this technology is based on real science. Small laboratory studies suggest that carefully controlled brain stimulation can improve a person's memory and math skills, sharpen attention, and accelerate learning. The US military is interested and is funding studies to test brain stimulation to increase alertness and alertness in soldiers. The technique may even be a viable treatment for damaging mental disorders such as major depression, according to other laboratory studies.
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However, many leading scientists insist that this simple, relatively safe and cheap technology is not suitable for home use. The research is too preliminary, and such stimulation may prove ineffective at best or dangerous at worst, some say. Certain types of stimulation can cause unwanted damage; Brain stimulation is not as foolproof as many people would like to believe.
Still, "people have been messing with their brains for a long time," says neuroscientist Vincent Clark of the University of New Mexico and the Mind Research Network, a nonprofit neuroscience research institute in Albuquerque. And protests by scientists are unlikely to change that. Scientists, politicians and DIYers are currently debating whether and how technology should be regulated.
Ethical constraints, as well as questions about efficacy and safety, call for restraint. But the lawsuit, fueled by tantalizing news from promising studies, has largely drowned out those warning calls. "We are in a fog of ignorance," says Hank Greely, a neuroethicist at Stanford Law School who studies how brain research intersects with society. "We really need to know more about how this works."
The brain deals with electricity. Small bursts of electricity create the signals that allow humans to think, remember and feel, so it makes perfect sense that external electricity could affect how the brain works.
This realization is not new. A physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius relieved headaches by projecting a live electric torpedo beam (similar to a stingray) onto the heads of sick patients. In the 11th century, the electric catfish was proposed to treat epilepsy. In the 19th century, the nephew of the Italian bioelectric pioneer Luigi Galvani, who used lightning to blow up the legs of dead frogs, used electrical stimulation to treat people's melancholy.
Today's burgeoning field of "electroceuticals" takes advantage of the same principle. Doctors use a variety of delivery methods, both external and implanted, to convert the electrical activity of the brain. For some people, electroconvulsive therapy can relieve severe depression or mania that medications don't fix. This surge of electricity triggers a brief seizure that is believed to reset the brain and alleviate symptoms. Some people with Parkinson's disease have also found relief from electricity: rhythmic discharges from electrodes implanted deep in the brain can reduce tremors and stiffness.
These methods are different from those that have caught the attention of the DIY crowd. Transcranial direct current stimulation, known as tDCS, sends small amounts of constant electrical current to the scalp. Although the details are still hazy, tDCS is thought to work by making neurons more or less active, depending on whether the device's anode or cathode is placed on the neurons. Electricity does not force neurons to fire messages or remain silent; Instead, it gently tips the scales toward action or inaction, studies have found.
Depending on which part of the brain is activated, tDCS can affect things like attention, working memory, visual skills, and math skills. For example, stimulation of the upper part of the brain resulted in 15 healthy people learning an invented number system better than healthy people who received no stimulation, and the benefits lasted for months after the stimulation ceased, according to neuroscientist Roi Cohen. Kadosh of Oxford University and colleagues.reportedcurrent biologyin 2010.
tDCS may also alleviate symptoms of depression, other small studies suggest. In a randomized study of 120 people with moderate to severe depression, tDCS with positive (anode) stimulation on the left hemisphere and negative (cathode) stimulation on the right brain enhanced the effects of the drug sertraline or Zoloft.scientists reporteda 2013 oneJAMA Psychiatry. Over a six-week period, people who received tDCS and sertraline scored an average of 11.5 points better on a depression rating scale than people who received placebos. (A decrease of three points was considered clinically relevant.) tDCS alone caused a smaller decrease (5.6 points) compared to sham, and sertraline alone caused an even smaller decrease: 2.9 points, less than placebo.
The technique could affect depression, as well as other brain processes, by increasing the brain's ability to respond flexibly to new situations or problems, a trait known as plasticity. Electricity can increase plasticity by triggering a series of events that ultimately change the way neurons communicate with each other. Researchers have observed tDCS-induced changes in certain molecules that help send and receive messages between neurons. These molecules, including NMDA, GABA, and glutamate receptors, have been linked to depression and other brain disorders in numerous studies.
Other, more far-reaching effects of electricity may be involved. tDCS appears to affect the behavior of large cohorts of neurons. More generally, electricity can affect blood flow in the brain, inflammation, and probably a host of other processes.
Despite an incomplete understanding of the technology, clinicians have already taken note of the results, particularly the antidepressant effects of tDCS. Various clinics offer tDCS therapy to patients, often outside of research studies.
However, some people don't want to go through the hassle of seeing a doctor or signing up for a lab study to experience tDCS. Pre-built tDCS machines can be purchased online for a few hundred dollars or less. DIY plans for building a tDCS system are available to anyone with an internet connection. So people make their own.
"I have a PhD student with a background in philosophy who could build one in an afternoon for less than $50," says neuroscientist and ethicist Peter Reiner of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "The device is surprisingly simple and therefore a bit scary."
Enter home improvement
No one really knows how many people are using this technology at home, Greely says. Her Stanford colleague, Anita Jwa, sent out a questionnaire to participants in the online tDCS chat groups and received responses from around 120 respondents. The survey is far from complete, but it is the first attempt to examine the home improvement community, which Jwa says is predominantly male and not necessarily young. About 23 percent of those surveyed were 40 or older, the survey found. "It's not just the pimply kid in the basement playing a great online role-playing game," says Greely.
Reduction in depression rating scale in people using tDCS plus Zoloft compared to reduction in depression with placebo
The amount of change that is considered clinically relevant
In fact, many of the people who use tDCS have a condition that hasn't been successfully treated and are trying it out of desperation, says Brent Williams, who maintains a tDCS website. With an engineering background, Williams had no problem building a unit for himself and his wife. They use it, among other things, to increase their creativity and memory.
Williams, who directs an educational program at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, believed that technology could transform lives. She started promoting it on his website. "I get emails every day from people doing tDCS stuff," she says. "A lot of these emails are coming from frankly pretty desperate people who live in countries or regions where they don't have access to the doctors that we have access to. They really want tDCS for depression or chronic pain or whatever," she says.
This idea, that people turn to tDCS instead of working with a doctor or using tDCS regularly for performance enhancement, worries some scientists and doctors. In particular, most scientists who regularly touch the brains of subjects in their labs are unlikely to apply the technology to their own brains, according to apublished studyin july-augustbrain stimulation. Of 287 researchers who looked at non-invasive brain stimulation (including, but not limited to, tDCS), only 8 percent said it squeezed. Common reasons for abstention were the assumption that the benefit was too small and safety concerns.
And those 8 percent of researchers were probably using machines proven enough to deliver an adequate dose of electricity. Home use is only as good as who builds and runs the system. Just ask people who have posted photos of scalp burns from inadequate electricity online.
Burns and even more serious reactions, such as reports of manic episodes and even temporary paralysis from brain stimulation, appear to be rare. "It's not like people drop dead or have their teeth knocked out," says Greely.
Other than trouble sleeping in the hours after using her tDCS system, Whitmore says she's never experienced any ill effects from tDCS. However, some effects can be subtle.
Ama 2013 workin themneuroscience journal, Cohen Kadosh, and a colleague reported that the math gains people experienced with experimental stimulation weakened another math ability. "We can improve one feature, but it comes at the expense of another feature," he says. It is quite possible that other deficiencies caused by tDCS have remained hidden because not many people have looked for them.
Assuming safety isn't an issue, there are many reasons why a person at home might not get the same results as participants in a carefully conducted laboratory study, says Cohen Kadosh. The best location in the brain to stimulate is probably different for everyone. Depending on culture, experience, and age, people rely on different parts of their brain for things like arithmetic. Also, brain regions can be found at slightly different physical coordinates from person to person.
The question of dosage has also not been clarified. Many studios use 1 to 2 milliamps of current for about 20 minutes at a time. But the effect of this dose can vary greatly from person to person. Antidepressants can alter the basic excitability of the brain, just like other drugs, both legal and illegal. Age, gender, and smoking have been linked to differences in brain behavior. And the movement of electrical current can be affected by the folds of the brain, the thickness of the skull, and the shape of the head. These individual quirks push the finish line, making it nearly impossible for anyone at home to know exactly where and for how long to apply stimulation.
For years, Cohen Kadosh has meticulously researched the best way to safely and effectively deliver electricity to the brain. But even he has reservations about using tDCS. “People are adults. They can do whatever they want," he says. "But I wouldn't do it myself."
¿Regular o no?
The fact that the desire for this technology precedes proper safety and efficacy studies became abundantly clear to Cohen Kadosh during his research with tDCS. "I've been approached by parents in the past who wanted to improve their child's performance to get into a great university or do better in school," he says.
Philosophically, external brain stimulation is no different than taking a child to piano lessons, Greely says, as long as the technique has been shown to be safe and effective. And that is a big limitation. "I know enough about brains to know that they are really complicated," she says. Without a deep understanding of how the brain works, Greely is reluctant to pry into hers. "Right now, I wouldn't encourage my kids to do that," she says.
At the moment it is perfectly legal to build or buy a tDCS system. The $249 tDCS headset, dubbed foc.us, is advertised as a tool to "excite the prefrontal cortex and gain an edge in online gaming." And Thync, a company developing a "mood-altering" headset, claims it will allow users to adjust their mood and create experiences that are energized, relaxed or focused.
The independent, nonprofit Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., will host a workshop early next year to explore the role of external brain stimulation in society. Discussions sponsored by a variety of federal agencies, patient groups, industry, and non-profit organizations will cover the potential benefits and risks of the technology, regulatory issues, and ethical dilemmas such as: B. whether it is acceptable to use the technology for enhancement cognitive function in healthy people and the effects of involuntary or forced use.
For his part, Williams, the Georgia home handyman, has written about using tDCS safely and ethically and has even proposed a code of safety standards for other home workers. Its rules include seeing a doctor for advice, treatment and follow-up, never using tDCS alone, and never using the technology on children or animals.
It's unclear if tDCS will really take off and become the next breakthrough app, says Greely. But as science continues to hum, it's likely that people will continue to push the limits of technology. That means the cautious "don't try this at home" from scientists will continue to fall on deaf ears and tingle scalps.
This story appears in the November 15, 2014 issue under the headline "Brain Hack: Consumers Take Control of Their Neurons."
What happens when you stimulate the brain? ›
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of the brain. These electrodes produce electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses. Or the electrical impulses can affect certain cells and chemicals within the brain.Why is stimulation important for the brain? ›
The more active your brain is, the better your memory is likely to be. The greater the variety of the ways in which you use your mind, the easier you'll find remembering.
Delivered to motor regions of the cerebral cortex, electrical stimulation can evoke a variety of first-order effects, including observable movements or an urge to move, or somatosensory, visual, or auditory percepts. In still other regions the subject may be oblivious to the stimulation.What is the success rate of deep brain stimulation? ›
Researchers in a 2019 study followed about 200 participants who received deep brain stimulation for over 10 years. The results showed that 75% of participants felt the procedure helped them manage their symptoms.What stimulates the brain the most? ›
Get mental stimulation
Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. Read, take courses, try "mental gymnastics," such as word puzzles or math problems Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.
Most individuals feel little if any sensation at all during normal use. For the few that do, it is described as a slight tingling down an arm or leg, or mild facial pulling which subsides. This is more common in individuals using DBS for essential tremor as the device can be turned off at bedtime.What are the benefits of mental stimulation? ›
Mental exercises help keep your brain active as you get older and can slow down brain aging, delaying cognitive decline and keep you mentally sharp for longer. Mental stimulation can also help reduce stress as well as reduce the feelings of anxiety and depression as well.What does lack of stimulation do to the brain? ›
Lack of stimulation will cause the brain to atrophy. As might be expected, brain stimulation protects against Alzheimer's and cognitive decline, while a lack of stimulation increases risk.What happens after deep brain stimulation? ›
The side effects can include abnormal sensations, numbness, tingling, and involuntary muscle contractions. Often, patients may also feel some discomfort related to the device's neurostimulator (or battery pack), which is implanted under the skin near the collar bone.Can you feel brain stimulation? ›
Current passes from one electrode to the other to electrically stimulate the brain. Many people describe a brief sensation of tingling, itching, or pins and needles on the scalp, underneath the electrode. This sensation typically lasts less than a minute. Some people do not feel anything at all.
What are the risks of electrical stimulation? ›
Evidence indicates a number of significant psychological and physical risks are associated with the use of these devices, including worsening of underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, pain, burns and tissue damage.Does deep brain stimulation work immediately? ›
For most, results are noticed shortly after the initial programming of the DBS. However, it could take several visits to adjust the settings for maximal benefit. Your physician will work with you to adjust the parameter settings in order to find the optimal symptom control without side effects.Who is not a good candidate for deep brain stimulation? ›
Elderly patients or patients with significant dementia may not be good candidates for DBS surgery. One of the most important factors in obtaining satisfactory outcomes for patients with PD after DBS is managing expectations (25).Does deep brain stimulation last forever? ›
Survey data suggest that while DBS does not halt disease progression in PD, it provides durable symptomatic relief and allows many individuals to maintain ADLs over long-term follow-up greater than 10 years. Furthermore, patient satisfaction with DBS remains high at long-term follow-up.What gives instant energy to brain? ›
The brain gets energy from glucose in carbohydrates. “Eat carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grain, cereal, bread and pasta to keep the brain functioning optimally,” recommends Dr.What gives the brain the most dopamine? ›
Engage in activities that make you happy or feel relaxed. This is thought to increase dopamine levels. Some examples include exercise, meditation, yoga, massage, playing with a pet, walking in nature or reading a book.At what age is your brain the sharpest? ›
They conclude that humans reach their cognitive peak around the age of 35 and begin to decline after the age of 45. And our cognitive abilities today exceed those of our ancestors. “Performance reveals a hump-shaped pattern over the life cycle,” report the authors in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Does deep brain stimulation change personality? ›
Responses indicated that experts considered personality change a relevant DBS risk, with 26.5% believing personality changes occur within at least 5% of patients. For 43.4%, stimulation was believed to be the main cause of personality changes.Is deep brain stimulation worth it? ›
Although DBS can improve movement symptoms of Parkinson's disease and greatly improve quality of life in properly selected patients, it is not likely to return anyone to perfect health.Can stimulating improve mental? ›
Mental stimulation can be described as activities that help enrich your mind and improve brainpower. It could be anything — reading a book, learning a language or a musical instrument, playing brain games, or even socializing with people.
Why do I crave mental stimulation? ›
New brain research: Hunger for stimulation driven by dopamine in the brain. Summary: Our need for stimulation and dopamine's action upon the brain are connected, which explains why people who constantly crave stimulation are in danger of addictive behavior such as drug abuse and gambling.What stimulates you intellectually? ›
Such activities as learning a new skill or language, reading, playing games, making crafts, creating art, playing music, taking up a new hobby, or any other mentally demanding activity, especially when engaging in those activities in a social setting.How to excite your mind? ›
Try these five fun and free activities to stimulate your brain in amazing ways:
- Use the opposite hand. ...
- Talk to yourself. ...
- Write down your dreams. ...
- Wash your hair with your eyes closed. ...
- Walk on.
- Fit in some exercise a few times a week. ...
- Get creative. ...
- Stock up on your vitamins and micronutrients. ...
- Socialize. ...
- Allow yourself to power nap. ...
- Break out of your daily routine. ...
- Try something new.
Basically, stimulation involves targeting specific brain regions with these pulses in order to quiet some mental processes and to activate or enhance others. There's good evidence that doing so can improve memory, pattern recognition, the ability to pay attention, mathematical abilities, and more.Does DBS improve quality of life? ›
STN-DBS improves QOL in patients with PD and early motor complications who fulfil the EARLYSTIM inclusion criteria independently of age, disease duration, and disease severity.How long is life expectancy after DBS? ›
The results showed that those treated with DBS survived longer, on average, than those without the device – 6.3 years after the surgery versus 5.7 years, respectively.Is deep brain stimulation reversible? ›
And unlike other surgeries (pallidotomy, thalamotomy) that damage brain tissue, DBS is reversible and can be turned off or removed if necessary.How do you stimulate the pleasure center of the brain? ›
Dopamine is most notably involved in helping us feel pleasure as part of the brain's reward system. Sex, shopping, smelling cookies baking in the oven — all these things can trigger dopamine release, or a "dopamine rush."When should you not use electrical stimulation? ›
TENS and EMS should not be used on vital parts, such as across the neck, chest or brain (and not at all if you have a pacemaker). Electrical stimulation should be used with caution during pregnancy or when trying to conceive. There is a potential of skin irritations and possibly burns if used excessively.
How long does electrical stimulation last? ›
Conclusion: The recommended duration of electrical stimulation with percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation therapy is 30 min.How long should you use electrical stimulation? ›
Research has shown that TENS is most helpful for chronic pain when used for at least 30 minutes while you are active. It is less effective when you are sitting still, lying down, or resting.Did Michael J Fox have deep brain surgery? ›
Fox had holes drilled into his brain as part of his treatment for Parkinson's Disease, according to one of his doctors. Allan Ropper, professor of neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, is quoted.What can you not do after DBS? ›
For 4 to 6 weeks: Avoid activities that strain your chest or upper arm muscles. This includes pushing a lawn mower or vacuum and mopping floors. It also includes swimming, or swinging a golf club or tennis racquet.How much does deep brain stimulation cost in the US? ›
The cost of deep brain stimulation varies depending on where you live. In the United States, the cost of surgery (including the implanted device, hospital fees and anesthesia) can range from $35,000 to $100,000.Does Medicare cover deep brain stimulation? ›
WILL DBS BE COVERED? Most public and private health insurance companies, including Medicare, cover approved uses of deep brain stimulation, including essential tremor treatment.Which mental disorders can be treated by deep brain stimulation? ›
Clinical trials into the use of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat psychiatric disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance use disorders, and anorexia are occurring internationally, including within Australia.How do I know if I am a candidate for deep brain stimulation? ›
Candidates for DBS meet these criteria: Symptoms are substantially reducing quality of life. Symptoms are uncontrolled despite receiving the suitable dose of medications. Side effects stemming from current medications cannot be tolerated.Can a deep brain stimulator be hacked? ›
In their discussion, although Ienca and Haselager identify DBS as a neuro-stimulator that may be particularly vulnerable to brainjacking, they instead focus on brainjacking BCIs, since the possibility of hacking these devices has been proven in both experimental and real-life settings.Does deep brain stimulation increase dopamine? ›
Deep Brain Stimulation Eases Parkinson's Disease Symptoms by Boosting Dopamine.
What does it mean to stimulate the brain? ›
By. n. a process of stimulating the acivity of specific areas in the brain, like the visual cortex or the motor cortex for instance. This is usually achieved through electrical stimulation of by means of transcranial magnetic stimulation.What does it mean to stimulate your mind? ›
If you are stimulated by something, it makes you feel full of ideas and enthusiasm.What happens when your brain is not stimulated? ›
And if you don't sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate. Generally, by the third or fourth decade in life, you're in decline," Dr. Merzenich says.What happens when the mind is not stimulated? ›
Activation of the mind increases physiological responses in the brain by inducing the flow of oxygen, blood and nutrients. Without activating these mechanisms neurons will eventually begin to shrink, as will the brain. These neurological effects flow-on to the psychological effects such as boredom and depression.What frequency makes you smarter? ›
Gamma: 30-100 Hz.
With a higher frequency than beta, these brain waves help in: Increased cognitive enhancement. Attention to detail, helping in memory recall.
- Play video games. Yes, you read that right. ...
- Learn a new language. Ever considered studying another language? ...
- Make some music. Music has several brain benefits. ...
- Travel. ...
- Exercise. ...
- Make art.
Research Studies Evaluating Intelligent People's Brains
A few interesting research studies show that people who have an IQ above an average level use different regions of the brain while solving tasks than people with average IQ scores.