Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have issued a warning against the increasingly popular use of do-it-yourself brain stimulation devices. According to the neuroscientists’ open letter in Annals of Neurology journal, the improvised application of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) poses hidden risks to healthy members of the public.
“Given the possibility that the improper use of our articles might cause harm, as a community we felt it necessary – an ethical obligation – to explain in a peer-reviewed journal why it is that we generally do not encourage do-it-yourself use of tDCS,” said first author, Rachel Wurzman, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation.
tDCS products are comprised of electrodes and a band that wraps around the head. The electrodes are placed along specific sections of the brain to enhance concentration, relaxation, focus and a number of other goals. Although a few companies like Apex and Ceylafy produce tDCS devices commercially (for between 52 and 200 Euros), it is also possible to build one’s own with relative ease. In light of the proliferation of sites teaching the public how to create the devices the scientific community has felt a growing need to dissuade against the practice.
The researchers argue that it is still unclear whether stimulation extends beyond the specific brain area targeted, creating the possibility of indirect consequences on other areas. Roy Hamilton, an assistant professor of Neurology and co-author said: “Stimulating one region could improve one’s ability to perform one task but hurt the ability to perform another.”
They go on to say the frequency with which some people use the devices has not been adequately tested. Some users go so far as to stimulate their brains daily for months or longer. “We know that stimulation from a few sessions can be quite lasting, but we do not yet know the possible risks of a larger cumulative dose over several years or a lifetime,” they wrote.
The authors also suggest that small changes in tDCS settings, including the current’s amplitude, stimulation duration and electrode placement, can have large and unexpected effects; more stimulation is not necessarily better.
In Germany tDCS have become popular as a medical tool, often in the area of migraine alleviation. A blogger at migraeneundkopfschmerznews.de is currently writing on the long-term use of a neurostimulation rproduct by Celafy. Having suffered from migraines her whole life, she reports that the tDCS was effective in holding off an impending attack. Although she found its application to be painful initially she says she has a “good feeling about Celafy and that it is an important building block in my migraine prevention”.
The coming age of super brain stimulators
Performance enhancement is already a big market in Germany. According to the DAK (Deutsche Angestellten-Krankenkasse), three million Germans admitted to taking some form of performance enhancing medication. And 2015 saw the percentage of workers who abuse substances for enhanced concentration rise from 4.5 to 6.7 percent.
What people hoped to get from medication is now also being sought in hardware, both in commercial tDCS and D.I.Y versions. In an interview with Die Welt newspaper, Robert Darkow, a speech therapist at the Charite hospital in Berlin, says he is already receiving emails from patients who built their own devices. Patients send in photographs showing burn marks on their temples, Darkow says, asking what they could have done wrong.
To date there are no laws regulating the sale of tDCS or the content on D.I.Y websites. So for now the primary voices of caution will have to come from the scientific community.