Hacking your brain with electronics
Neuroscientists are divided about whether electrical brain stimulation improves learning or helps depression, but that hasn’t stopped DIY hackers giving it a try.
Struggling with your mathematics homework? Sudoku proving too hard? Depression? ADHD? Post-traumatic stress disorder?
There’s a solution: it involves strapping electrodes to your head and feeding a current through your brain. Sound good?
There’s an increasingly active community of amateur brain hackers, two neuroscientists told SXSW, with all the relevant electrical parts available to buy online for less than $100 and delivered to the privacy and, theoretically, safety of your own home.
When Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield practiced pioneering brain surgery and research from the 1930s to the 50s, it involved poking or electrically stimulating the brain directly. Cameron Craddock, director at the Nathan S Kline Institute For Psychiatric Research in New York, showed a video of a patient in the early 60s who had an electrode attached to her brain’s nucleus accumbens, or pleasure center.
She repeatedly pressed a button on the control panel resting on her lap that connected directly to her brain, and when asked what it felt like she whispered “sex button”.
Brain stimulation is a little more sophisticated now, and non-invasive. Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), Cameron explains, involves running a current through your brain and can be self-applied. There’s already an active community of “citizen scientists” experimenting with this and sharing their experiences online.
“If you’ve ever licked a battery you’ve probably done TDCS,” he quips. All the equipment to do this is readily available online. The red part goes near the part of the brain you want to stimulate, the the black pad goes on the opposite side and you just hope that things work that way.” There is some evidence, he said, that using this technique helps improve the rate of learning, encouraging neurons and synapses to do the right thing while the brain is processing information.
Another technique is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which stimulates a relatively localized area of a few square centimeters. That can interfere (and therefore hopefully improve) the ability to speak, move and count, depending where on the brain it is applied. And some of these techniques are nearing FDA approval for treatment of conditions such as depression, Cameron says.
There’s a significant variation in results depending on where on the brain the stimulation is applied, what oscillation and what voltage, and increasing the amount of current to the brain doesn’t necessarily produce better results; it can trigger inhibitory effect on the nervous system rather than an “excitory” one, he says.
While some startups are focusing on meditation, sleep and nutrition to improve mental performance, others are looking at electric brain stimulation. Thync’s $199 device uses transdermal electrical neurosignalling; the user applies one patch to their temple and another to the back of their neck, and can either set it to trigger energy or calm. The stimulation, Cameron says, tigers nerve responses in the face, so the “nervous periphery” rather than direct brain stimulation.
Are there side effects? TMS can damage hearing, cause scalp discomfort, spasms and headaches. TDCS can cause a slight itching on the skin during stimulation, dizziness and fatigue.
Do we need to be skeptical? Cameron said that for every piece of scientific research that shows positive effects of brain stimulation, there’s one that shows little or no effect. It’s still a contentious scientific area. But if you still really want to try it, ask the internet.