It began more than a decade ago, when engineers and hobbyists began to get excited about jury-rigged electrical technology designed to improve brain function. The movement continues to grow, and brain zappers are no longer just young workshop mechanics, but also older professionals who spend hundreds of dollars on high-quality portable systems. As scientists, physicians, and industry leaders study these intriguing but controversial mind-altering practices, one thing is clear: the idea of applying an electrical current to the scalp to promote learning or to treat illness in the comfort of your own home is gaining traction. But it works?
Known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), this form of attempted brain hacking isn't as far-fetched as it might sound. The brain runs on electricity. Brain cells accumulate charges that drive chemical signals across synapses, the tiny spaces between neurons. When we learn something, the synapses involved are conditioned to fire more easily, and tDCS supposedly amplifies this process. The tiny electrical currents that tDCS uses, typically one to two milliamps, can't actually trigger the chemical impulse that crosses a synapse, but some researchers believe tDCS strengthens synaptic connections to make learning more efficient. Small laboratory studies suggest it may improve alertness and reaction times. "You get more bang for your buck" by combining tDCS with traditional exercise, says Marom Bikson, a professor of biomedical engineering at the City College of New York.
The birth of the non-invasive brain stimulation movement is widely credited to a 2000 publication by German neurophysiologists Michael Nitsche and Walter Paulus. In a small study of healthy 20-year-olds, scientists showed that they could make neurons more or less excitable by sending weak electrical currents through the brain's motor cortex. The effects lasted minutes after stimulation. Previously, tDCS had only been studied in animals.
A later 2003 study showed that such stimulation could enhance a cognitive skill psychologists call motor sequence learning: the process of training the brain in the precisely sequenced steps needed to interact with the world, such as by Listening or performing a word movement. Several labs at Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health took note of these results and conducted research that indicated tDCS showed promise for stroke and chronic pain rehabilitation.
Back in 2006, Brett Wingeier began looking into this area. Wingeier, who trained in medical devices, was the chief biomedical engineer at NeuroPace, a Silicon Valley company that makes brain implants designed to help fight epilepsy. He had also been working on brain stimulators to relieve cluster headaches and movement symptoms that plague Parkinson's patients. "You may be incapacitated, but you turn on the stimulator and everything goes away. It's amazing," says Wingeier. However, he notes that such devices “are only relevant for patients with relatively serious illnesses. They are surgical implants.”
Wingeier dreamed of using neurotechnology to help more patients, and maybe even healthy people. He was excited to see new tDCS studies, but many "were done with yellow sponges, measuring tape, and headbands," he says. The time seemed right to consider incorporating product design principles into what he calls "a legitimate consumer product" that people can just take out of the box and use.
Further plans took shape as scientists developed the possible mechanisms for how tDCS works. In a series of electrophysiological experiments published in 2009, Bikson and some of his colleagues showed that a weak electric field can synchronize activity in a neural network. These findings inspired Wingeier and other researchers who worked to target tDCS to specific areas of the brain.
Since the 2000 study by Nitsche and Paulus, researchers have published more than 4,000 scientific articles on tDCS, a third of them in the last two years. In the medical field, some studies suggest that brain stimulation could help people with neuropathic pain, as well as depression, schizophrenia, and a variety of other psychiatric conditions. Currently, tDCS is still being tested for medical use in the US, although these devices are approved in Europe to treat pain and depression. More than 800 tDCS trials are listed in the clinicaltrials.gov database, which tracks ongoing drug therapy or medical device trials. In one small study, tDCS appeared to improve the mood effects of mindfulness meditation, and an ongoing clinical trial is investigating whether tDCS can help slow cognitive decline when combined with a computer-based exercise program in older adults.
Additionally, a growing number of studies are testing tDCS in healthy people and suggest that it may improve working memory, attention and decision-making, and stimulate creativity. A 2012 study funded by the US Department of Defense showed that tDCS can improve surveillance by allowing participants to spot bombs, snipers, and other threats in blurry images twice as fast. Since then, four other labs have shown that the technology could improve learning: "one of the few effects of tDCS that has been replicated across institutions," says Vincent Clark, a cognitive neuroscientist and first author of the 2012 paper. Clark directs the Center for clinical psychological neuroscience at the University of New Mexico.
The tsunami of academic literature on tDCS has unleashed a corresponding wave of media articles claiming that brain shocks can improve memory, boost math skills and "bring out the genius in you". An article in theJournal of Medical Ethicscalls tDCS “the Swiss army knife of human neuroscience”. As the potential of tDCS reached the general public, home users flocked to cyberspace. In 2011, tDCS users created a Reddit forum and started a blog the following year. Thousands of home users visit these sites to discuss scientific articles, post educational videos, and ask questions such as: B. where to place the electrodes and how long to stimulate. The Reddit forum has grown from 2,500 to around 11,000 subscribers over the past five years.
In 2013, the first consumer wearable tDCS device, a gaming headset, was released. Since then, more than a dozen companies have started selling tDCS products. Some offer $40 kits that include leads, electrodes, and headbands that the customer assembles at home. At the other end of the spectrum, Halo Neuroscience, the San Francisco-based company Wingeier co-founded in 2013, sells $500 helmets for elite athletes. The device stimulates the motor cortex and, when combined with exercise, promises "gains in strength, explosiveness, endurance, and dexterity." Caputron, which launched in 2014, also sells a line of medical-grade consumer brain stimulation devices. The company distributed more than 10,000 tDCS products in 2015 and more than 20,000 in 2016.
Most consumer tDCS devices are not marketed for clinical use, but for entertainment and cognitive enhancement. None of the consumer kits have officially passed the rigorous testing process that a drug or medical device must undergo in order to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and the buyer only has confirmation from the manufacturer that it is fit for its intended use. And the uses can be ambiguous. For example, when companies claim that their tDCS device "increases focus" or "boosts brain function," it's hard to tell whether those devices are under FDA control, says Anna Wexler, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and which examines the ethical, legal, and social implications of neurotechnology. The agency defines a medical device as "an instrument designed ... to affect the structure or any function of the body," she says. "How a manufacturer markets the product dictates the regulatory path," adds Wexler, who examined some of these issues in a 2015 report.Journal of Medical EthicsPaper. The claims of improvement have raised suspicions among scientists and led to more controlled laboratory studies. In an experiment published in March 2016, a team from the Netherlands reported that commercial tDCS headphones actually made participants less accurate on an established test of working memory.
Despite the uncertainty about efficacy claims, there is continued interest in tDCS as a tool to optimize mental function. The devices are small and seem relatively safe. Reviewing the literature on human tDCS studies, Bikson and colleagues reported in the fall of 2016 that conventional use in more than 33,200 sessions as well as in 1,000 repeat-session subjects did not cause any serious side effects.
A major issue in evaluating how well the technology works is that the vast majority of research studies use brain stimulation for purposes other than home users of tDCS. Compare home use to the groundbreaking 2000 paper by Nitsche and colleagues that tested whether noninvasive brain stimulation could help people move again after a stroke. "We just wanted to know if we could change the performance of the engine," says Nitsche. "Our question wasn't, 'Does the stimulation protocol induce peak performance?'" Home users of tDCS, on the other hand, are not particularly interested in making new scientific discoveries, says Wexler. "They are interested in self-improvement."
This search for improvements could potentially lead to adverse consequences. In 2016, clinicians and scientists working on tDCS published aAnnals of NeurologyEditorial warning of possible adverse effects. For example, stimulating an area of the brain can help someone learn new material but impairs the ability to process what is learned. Changes in brain activity may last longer than the user expects or extend beyond the regions beneath the electrodes. Furthermore, the effects of tDCS vary greatly between individuals and with small changes in the process. When it comes to electrode placement, "just a few centimeters can be enough to change the effect," says Clark. "How long you stimulate, how much current you inject, whether it's two milliamps or one milliamp or something in between, all of that matters." Genetics, age, and skull thickness also appear to affect response. The technical specifications for medical applications are not yet clearly outlined, let alone the parameters for cognitive enhancement.
At a conference in New York City in the summer of 2017 that Bikson helped organize, tDCS researchers and providers came together to discuss the potential of the technology and concerns surrounding it and other forms of neuromodulation. In 2018, the group released a report designed to help consumers make informed decisions about buying and using these devices. “Right now, consumers are a bit confused. They see a $20 device and they see a $700 device,” says Bikson. "They may not have enough information to understand why the $700 device represents greater value to them."
And it looks like tDCS is just the beginning. In addition to applying direct current to the scalp, brain hacking researchers and do-it-yourselfers are experimenting with other methods, including alternating current stimulation and random noise. These could one day complement more established non-invasive medical technologies like magnetic stimulation and ultrasound to affect brain function and behavior. Transcranial direct current stimulation, says Clark, "is just the tip of the iceberg."
MORE TO EXPLORE
A pragmatic analysis of the regulation of transcranial direct current stimulation (TCS) devices in the United States.Anne Wexler aJournal of Law and Life Sciences, Bd. 2, Nr. 3, S. 669-696; November 2015.
Safety of transcranial direct current stimulation: evidence-based update 2016.Marom Bikson et al. onebrain stimulation, Bd. 9, No. 5, S. 641-661; September/October 2016.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS)
Esther Casa de Campois a freelance science and health writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter@elandhuis
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Do at home brain stimulators work? ›
At-home brain stimulation devices are an effective treatment for relieving symptoms of depression. Although perhaps not efficient in long-term use, it is still uncertain whether it will become a clinically applicable device.Can the brain be electrically stimulated? ›
Because electrical charges are responsible for brain activity, electrical stimulation can in turn be used to change the brain's functioning. Brain stimulation has been used to treat mood disorders and stress, and it can even help people to solve problems, memorize information, and pay better attention.What is do it yourself brain stimulation? ›
The “do-it-yourself” (DIY) brain stimulation movement began in earnest in late 2011, when lay individuals began building stimulation devices and applying low levels of electricity to their heads for self-improvement purposes (Wexler, 2016b).Do tDCS devices work? ›
There is no strong evidence that tDCS can help improve upper limb function after stroke. In stroke, research conducted as of 2014, has found that tDCS is not effective for improving upper limb function after stroke.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.How effective is electrical stimulation? ›
Generally speaking, e-stim is most effective at working weakened or atrophied muscles and healing muscles after an injury or surgery. As a pain reliever, e-stim (especially TENS therapy) can be effective in treating many conditions, though typically as part of a broader pain-management program.Can you use a TENS unit to stimulate the brain? ›
In addition, it is proposed that the peripheral stimulus provided by TENS may also enhance higher‐level brain function more directly via ascending neural pathways transmitting information to the brain.What are four methods used to stimulate the brain electrically or magnetically? ›
vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) magnetic seizure therapy (MST) deep brain stimulation (DBS)Can I stimulate my brain? ›
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.
Yes. Since you can crank up the electrical stimulation on your own, Best says, “You want it to be a moderate feeling but not painful or uncomfortable.” She also suggests treatment for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and you can use ice with it to help reduce inflammation.
Can tDCS be done at home? ›
Overall, our findings suggest that with proper training and enhanced remote monitoring, tDCS application in home-bound patients with multiple chronic symptoms is possible.What are the negative side effects of tDCS? ›
According to the review of 567 tDCS sessions, adverse events (and occurrence rates) included: tingling sensation (70.6%); moderate fatigue (35.3%); light itching sensation under the stimulation electrodes (30.4%); headache (11.8%); nausea (2.9%); and insomnia (0.98%) .Can you use tDCS too much? ›
Because the neural effects of tDCS can be long-lasting, what might be advantageous in one situation could therefore leave you impaired in a different context later. Misuse of the technology could risk seizures or scalp burns. Also watch out for itching, fatigue and nausea.How long does it take for tDCS to work? ›
How long does tDCS treatment take to work? Clinical improvements resulting from tDCS treatment can vary in terms of how long those therapeutic effects can take to present themselves. It may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks for tDCS patients to notice improvements from the treatment.What is the downside to DBS? ›
Difficulty concentrating. Stroke. Hardware complications, such as an eroded lead wire. Temporary pain and swelling at the implantation site.What are the disadvantages of electrical stimulation? ›
The incorrect placement of electrodes can actually increase spasticity. Stimulating at an intensity that is too high can result in muscle aches. These side effects will subside within a few days of stopping the treatments. Rarely, there have been reports of skin irritation from the electrodes.What are the risks of deep brain stimulation? ›
- 1% risk of brain hemorrhage, including stroke.
- Device malfunction.
- Lack of benefit for certain symptoms.
- Worsening mental or emotional status.
You can safely use a TENS machine as often as you like. Usually for 30-60 minutes up to 4 times daily. TENS can provide relief for up to four hours.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.
Is electrical stimulation of the brain invasive? ›
Transcranial electrical stimulation is a non-invasive technique that can be used to stimulate brain activity and gather information about brain function.What does brain electrotherapy do? ›
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure, done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental health conditions.What are the effects of electricity on the brain? ›
Research has shown that the effects of electric shock on the brain may include neurologic and neuropsychological consequences such as memory loss, depression, deficits in visuospatial reasoning and an injury victim's inability to perform routine personal and professional tasks.Can magnets damage your brain? ›
Studies have shown that it can change the flow of blood in the brain, and turn off neuron groups. Some people, under the influence of high magnetic fields have caused people to have violent seizures, and even lose consciousness, slip into comas, and die.Does magnet therapy work? ›
While some smaller studies in this review reported therapeutic value, larger studies did not. The researchers concluded: "The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment."What are the side effects of magnet therapy? ›
Magnet treatment is relatively safe. Some patients may experience dizziness, low energy, palpitation, nausea, and vomiting. Side effects can include a decrease in blood pressure, or local skin areas can become itchy, burning, and painful; however, side effects only happen in a very small percentage of cases.How can I activate 100% of my brain? ›
- Do exercise on a regular basis.
- Sleep very well at nights.
- Don't get away from social life and a good time.
- Manage your stress.
- Eat nutritiously.
- Train your brain.
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural pathways throughout life and in response to experiences. While the brain usually does this itself in response to injury or disease, when humans focus their attention enough, they can slowly rewire these pathways themselves.How do I activate my whole brain? ›
- Try puzzles.
- Play cards.
- Build vocabulary.
- Use your senses.
- Learn a new skill.
- Teach a skill.
- Listen to music.
Electrical stimulation (ES) induces muscle damage that is characterised by histological alterations of muscle fibres and connective tissue, increases in circulating creatine kinase (CK) activity, decreases in muscle strength and development of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Can you use EMS too much? ›
Before you consider how many you need, it is important to understand that the maximum amount of times you can train using Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) technology is 1-2 times per week. This is to allow time for your muscles to repair and recoup before your next session. Yes, you NEED that time to recover!What is the price of electrical stimulation machine? ›
₹4,749. 00 Fulfilled FREE Delivery.Does tDCS increase dopamine? ›
Results: Following the application of cathodal, but not anodal, tDCS for 10 min, extracellular dopamine levels increased for more than 400 min in the striatum. There were no significant changes in extracellular serotonin levels.Can tDCS increase IQ? ›
Frohlich's team did find that all scores improved. Surprisingly, though, the participants who did not receive tDCS saw their IQ scores increase by ten points, whereas participants who received tDCS saw their IQ scores increase by just shy of six points, on average.How many times a day can you do tDCS? ›
Bifrontal add-on tDCS delivered twice per day over 5 days, in combination with antidepressant medication, can be a safe and suitable approach to achieve remission in patients with mild to severe treatment-resistant major depressive disorder.Can brain stimulation improve memory? ›
Drawing on this research, the team showed that stimulating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — a region near the front of the brain — with high-frequency electrical currents improved long-term memory, whereas stimulating the inferior parietal lobe, which is further back in the brain, with low-frequency electrical ...How long is deep brain stimulation effective? ›
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.What are the effects of electrical stimulation on the brain? ›
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 best brain 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.What is the most powerful method of improving memory? ›
The best way to protect and improve memory is by making good lifestyle choices: exercising regularly, limiting stress, eating healthfully, and getting enough sleep. You can also keep the mind agile by learning a foreign language or playing brain training games to improve thinking skills and short-term memory.
Which device is used to improve memory? ›
Mnemonic devices are useful learning aids when memorizing large amounts of information. Using memory-boosting tools, such as loci, chunking, or rhyming, can make learning much easier and even fun.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).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.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.