The promise and peril of DIY electrical brain stimulation
by Anna Denejkina
Written for The Kernel (The Daily Dot’s Sunday magazine)
Published in Mysteries of the Brain Issue, April 10th, 2016
The last 15 years have seen a resurgence of interest among medical researchers in transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. It’s a mild form of brain stimulation that uses a direct, constant, low current delivered to the brain via electrodes—typically placed at both sides of the forehead to stimulate the prefrontal cortex. Some studies suggest this stimulation can help alleviate depression, offering a potential alternative for patients who want to avoid medication and the more severe electroconvulsive therapy.
Studies have also suggested the treatment could enhance cognition, which inevitably led to a do-it-yourself tDCS community forming online. So while research into the medical uses for tDCS has crept slowly forward, alongside it runs a parallel track of lay experimenters using themselves as guinea pigs. And a market has evolved for homebrew tDCS kits, too; many promise the kinds of cognitive improvements that science can’t yet prove. The growing number of experimenters—and businesses willing to cater to them—has some scientists and researchers concerned.
“I highly discourage the do-it-yourself tDCS,” says Veronica Galvez. She’s a visiting psychiatrist and clinical research officer with the Black Dog Institute—a Sydney, Australia-based research and treatment clinic. The institute specializes in mood disorders, including depression and anxiety; it’s currently conducting a tDCS trial. Galvez points out that such trials require a long screening process designed to keep participants safe; they’re conducted by teams of psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, and experienced post-doctoral researchers. “It’s not only that you need specific training; it’s that you need to know your medical and psychiatric conditions,” she says. Technique is important and must be standardized; you’re running electrical current into the brain, after all. “The people commercializing these devices,” she says, “are not taking these issues into account.”
Illustration by J. Longo