DIY Brain Stimulation
May 7, 2014 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Inside the Strange New World of DIY Brain Stimulation. "Inspired by scientific studies, ordinary people are buying and building devices to send electrical current into their brains. Some say it has improved their memory and focus. Others have found relief from depression and chronic pain. But are they getting ahead of the science?" [Via]
posted by homunculus (42 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

Wired Is On It
posted by grobstein at 5:21 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

*rips lamp cord out of lamp*




*waits for million dollar idea*

*gives up*

*pours dram of Scotch single malt*
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:36 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been doing this for years and there's nothing wrong with me
...nothing wrong with me
...nothing wrong with me
...nothing wrong with me
...nothing wrong with me
...nothing wrong with me
...nothing wrong with me
...nothing wrong with me
posted by double block and bleed at 5:48 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

On a more serious note, I'll wait until there's a scientific consensus.
posted by double block and bleed at 5:50 PM on May 7, 2014

Autoerotic electrocution?
posted by Pudhoho at 5:59 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not a big fan of referring to quackery as "getting ahead of the science," since that characterization assumes that the science will eventually vindicate the quackery, which is, to put it mildly, not a safe assumption.
posted by The World Famous at 6:01 PM on May 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

I knew someone who had an electric brain stimulation device she got on loan from her therapist, and she let me use it occasionally. It was mostly mildly unpleasant to use, and it usually made me feel slightly nauseous. Afterwards I felt like I'd taken a tiny hit off a joint for half an hour or so, but not in a good way.

But you know? Whatever works for you.
posted by carsonb at 6:09 PM on May 7, 2014

Placebo is a hell of a drug.
posted by penduluum at 6:22 PM on May 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

Spoiler alert: yes. See this BRAIN-initiative-related DARPA BAA. If they're giving multiple multisite teams ~25 million dollars apiece to provide moderate levels of memory enhancement using implanted electrodes, I promise it ain't that easy.
posted by supercres at 6:23 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ugh, just cut to the chase and link me to the item already so I can be fooled by the marketing for a little while and feel great about my battery-powered brain boosties!
posted by oceanjesse at 6:57 PM on May 7, 2014

Of course, you could always do lame-o stuff like read a book, listen to music, strike up conversations with people who are radically different from you, learn a new skill or travel to exotic locales if you want to stimulate your brain.

No gadgets involved in any of that, though.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:01 PM on May 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

If you prefer a commercially-available, FDA-approved brain simulator, don't wait! Get your placebo effect here.
posted by Dashy at 7:06 PM on May 7, 2014

And here I've just been running.

That said, I do think that the effectiveness of things like cardio for this exact same stuff, plus things like the cheap OTC supplement I take for my skin-picking that just turns the damned impulse off? Brains are weird.

Exercise probably makes more sense, though, just because most people don't get enough of it anyway.
posted by Sequence at 7:11 PM on May 7, 2014

“The electric thinking cap that makes you cleverer … and happier!” one British newspaper gushed

Thanks to my electric hat, I knew it was the Daily Mail before I even googled it
posted by compartment at 8:18 PM on May 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

Millivolts good... 12 volts better... sixteen thousand volts -- I'll be a super villain genius bzzzz crackle -- what's that burning smell?
posted by sammyo at 8:39 PM on May 7, 2014

Of course electrical stimulation can have an effect. Electroconvulsive therapy can be effective for the kinds of depression that don't respond to talk or medicinal therapies, and it really is just a kind of electrical stimulation. But it's done with medical supervision, which is not terribly DIY. And with the currents used, you'll generally be knocked out and have a little memory loss afterwards, so it's best done in institutional settings.

A safer, saner gadget-based way to change what's going on in your brain would be TMS.
posted by Jpfed at 8:53 PM on May 7, 2014

Heh. I just tried this at home (for about two seconds at about 2mA), and I think I saw phospenes.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 9:12 PM on May 7, 2014

If I don't trust myself to own a gun or drive a car, I damn sure don't trust myself to zap my brain, if DIY brain-zapping even works, with anything like the precision or know-how needed to boost my happy.

I'll just eat my veggies and get out of the house once in a while, thanks.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:30 PM on May 7, 2014

This sounds way less dangerous than many of the chemical-based brain stimulation experiments people I know have undertaken, and those experiments have almost always worked out just fine.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:42 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

A researcher I worked with in my neuroscience days once tried some TDCS brain-booster stuff in his lab, which had just gotten the equipment. His report was that it made him feel a whole lot more alert and sharper, but it didn't last long enough to be useful and wasn't worth the burn on his head he got after the electrode dried out. It always did peak my curiosity, though.

He actually runs a TDCS lab of his own these days... ironic.
posted by Itaxpica at 10:00 PM on May 7, 2014

If you're not jacked in, you're not alive.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:58 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised they didn't link to the groundbreaking research of Dr. Emilio Lizardo.
posted by mecran01 at 11:17 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Pretty sure a friend was given a TENS electrostimulator for pain relief after a dental operation..

Bonus question: what's the best way to get my electrodes sticky again?
posted by 3mendo at 11:32 PM on May 7, 2014

Placebo is a hell of a drug.

It's also a legitimate drug, but we're not quite ready for that yet culturally.
posted by MillMan at 11:56 PM on May 7, 2014

Metafilter: afterwards I felt like I'd taken a tiny hit off a joint for half an hour or so, but not in a good way.
posted by Segundus at 2:21 AM on May 8, 2014

Autoerotic electrocution?

posted by yoHighness at 3:51 AM on May 8, 2014

Bonus question: what's the best way to get my electrodes sticky again?

Waaaay too obvious jokes aside, you can buy new electrodes fairly cheaply from Amazon, among other places.
posted by pjern at 4:32 AM on May 8, 2014

I was going to say that though serious technology is available, a couple of sponges and a nine-volt battery aren't it; but then I read this:

The way it’s often described in the scientific as well as the DIY community, is that the desirable effects from tDCS come from putting a positive electrode over some part of the brain you want to stimulate and perhaps a negative electrode over some part that you want to inhibit.

posted by Segundus at 4:41 AM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wow, it's 21st century phrenology.
posted by Ned G at 6:54 AM on May 8, 2014

There is some heavy scientific precedent for this sort of self-experimentation:

In the mid-1660s, Newton became so fascinated by the nature of light and vision that he seriously risked blinding himself by staring at the sun, and by poking the sides of his eyeball with a 'bodkin' (i.e. a small knife), in order to assess how such activities would affect his sight.
posted by thelonius at 7:35 AM on May 8, 2014

Shout out to Dr. Michael Persinger's "God Helmet" which induces mystical experiences in the user.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:41 AM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

This guy sells them (he's a student of Dr. Persinger).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:43 AM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh wait, I misread this. They are stimulating their brains with electric current - so basically a DIY electroshock therapy. This I would not do.

The work of Dr. Persinger at Laurentian University is based on magnetic brain stimulation, which is very different. I personally wouldn't zap my brain with current (I'd rather save the few braincells that I do have), but magnetic fields are no problem since that wouldn't change any structure of the brain, but how the brain is operating (how signals are being sent). This is similar-ish to ingesting chemicals, which also aim to change the how of the brain, although its working on the 'third dimension' of magnetic fields, if you will.

Dr. Persinger has decades of research magnetically stimulating the brain and invoking mystical/euphoric/spiritual experiences in the subject, hence the nick name "the god helmet."

Just google 'magnetic brain stimulation' and you will find a series of researchers who are taking these topics very seriously. It is a very exciting time that will change how we treat ourselves (since currently all we do is take MRI pictures and ingest drugs).

This might make people uncomfortable because it goes into woo territory (since the experiences induced are outside of the daily experience) but that shouldn't shy anyone away from looking at it seriously. This is an exciting time in research and I can't wait to see what people come up with. Researchers have not yet cracked the nut of consciousness, so why not look in a different physical location such as the electromagnetic functioning of the brain. (Although currently my bet is on Antonio Damasio's research on vegetative states and locked-in syndrome and his book Self Comes to Mind is very good too.)

Anyways honestly I don't see an issue with DIY magnetic brain stimulation (this as a person with a degree in electrical engineering) but no I would not zap my brain with DIY currents.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:14 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems no one has said it yet... there's no way to really know if any sort of skin-based electrical stimulation gets to the brain at all, is there? I mean, the skin is pretty conductive and the skull isn't, so... my guess is that the current just flows through the skin and the brain remains pretty much completely unaffected by applying 9 volts to your skin.
posted by GuyZero at 10:36 AM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, it's 21st century phrenology.

Not exactly, no. ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is actually incredibly efficacious for treatment-resistant depression and bipolar disorder (I and II, not sure about NOS). The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto is doing a lot of research into transcranial stimulation (both electric and magnetic AFAIK) for a whole bunch of things. Last year, they were looking at TCS as a cure for nicotine addiction, and according to my shrink there they were kind of really surprised at the rate of effectiveness.

What we know about the brain and how it functions is dwarfed, by several orders of magnitude, by what we don't know. Now, I don't think DIY is the way to go with this, peer-reviewed medical research is better, but this sort of thing isn't actually woo.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:57 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

He has treated more than 300 people with overwhelmingly positive results

At $2,400 per treatment, times $300, that's $720,000.

You could call that an "overwhelmingly positive result".

As a physician, I'm aware that any new modality I use has unknown risks as well as benefits. Any new psychiatric treatment that's just entered the market, basically that's a market-wide field test with limited efficacy and risk data based on narrow patient populations and short durations. I have some patients with chronic fatigue, depressive or anxiety symptoms that simply do not respond to available SSRIs, SNRIs, NDRIs, augmentation, etc. They have a long history of placebo-like response to new medications. Some of them have even had repeated exposure to ECT, TMS, and so on, with similar poor outcomes. And then they come to me asking to spend hundreds of dollars per month on the latest heavily marketed antidepressant with all these fiddly little partial agonism/antagonism neuron receptor claims. Rarely do they respond well to a discussion of the known unknowns, let alone the unknown unknowns. I suspect it'll be similar with this fad.
posted by meehawl at 12:23 PM on May 8, 2014

Cochrane Review for chronic pain: “For CES (four studies, 133 participants) no statistically significant difference was found between active stimulation and sham. Analysis of tDCS studies (five studies, 83 people) demonstrated significant heterogeneity and did not find a significant difference between active and sham stimulation. Pre-specified subgroup analysis of tDCS applied to the motor cortex suggested superiority of active stimulation over sham (SMD -0.59, 95% CI -1.10 to -0.08).”

From same author, the problem of inadequate sham protocols.
posted by meehawl at 1:10 PM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

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