Note: This article is intended for informational and entertainment purposes only – don’t try this at home.
Want to hear about an incredibly science-fiction sounding concept that’s going on right now?
Transcranial direct current stimulation. This is a procedure that involves running weak electrical currents through your brain, via your scalp, in order to combat conditions like depression and even to help you learn faster and think more creatively. Perhaps the most exciting use of tDCS is to suppress certain areas of the brain and thereby unlock ‘latent savant abilities’…
And ‘biohackers’ and ‘grinders’ are already using these devices and discussing them at length on online forums. That science fiction enough for you?
Far-fetched though it sounds, in fact it is founded in solid science and the research so far appears to suggest that the technique can be useful in all manner of therapeutic and transhuman applications.
Let’s take a closer look at this intriguing emerging field…
The Set Up
To use tDCS, you take a few moistened pads and attach them to your scalp in a number of pre-set positions.
These pads are then wired up to a circuit and attached to a battery. Generally, the aim will be to run between 0.5 and 2.0 milliamps of current, which is the range that the majority of the research has focused on. The safety of using currents above this is not fully established.
You can actually build one of your own using a 9volt battery as long as you use resistors in order to bring the current way down. You would also need a fuse in order to prevent power spikes that could otherwise lead to serious damage to your brain. You would also use at least a multimeter to check that the current was correct and damp sponges to provide the conductivity.
You can buy these devices online too for as little as $55 but these tend to be made by hobbyists with no FDA approval.
In other words? Don’t try this at home – leave it to the experts.
When complete, these circuits anode – which leads power into your skull – and a cathode, which is what allows the power to leave. Essentially, you are creating a circuit that runs through your skull, using your brain as you would any other component like an LED.
You then apply the damp pads to your head, taking care to use positions that have proven demonstrable results in studies. Interestingly, while the anode stimulates, the cathode actually suppresses brain areas. Sometimes it is used on an arbitrary point (such as the shoulder) just to close the circuit. In other cases, it is placed strategically like the anode in order to suppress certain areas of the brain.
The precise positions of the anodes and cathodes is known as a ‘montage’ and biohackers are able to find lists of montages for all kinds of results.
How it Works
tDCS is what is known as ‘neurostimulation’. In other words, it works by stimulating the neurons to encourage them to fire, as well as to encourage neuroplasticity (the formation of new neural connections) and aid learning.
What’s important to realize here is the distinction between tDCS and electrical stimulation. In electrical stimulation, researchers actually encourage neurons to fire by running a stronger current. Neurostimulation doesn’t actually trigger firing (action potentials) but instead simply potentiates them, increasing the likelihood that they will fire and that they will form connections.
Perhaps surprisingly, this works actually by increasing the amount of BDNF in the brain (1). BDNF is ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’ and works as a neurotransmitter as well as strengthening the bonds between neurons.
While this might all sound far-fetched, a lot of studies have actually found tDCS to be reliable for improving memory and learning when correctly applied (2). When the anode is used against the cerebellum, this can enhance motor learning (3). More interestingly, when a montage is applied correctly (stimulating the anterior temporal lobes), it seems that we can unlock almost ‘savant’ like abilities (4). Researchers say that this process unlocks a different ‘kind of insight’.
Other studies meanwhile have found that tDCS can be effective in treating depression (5). This normally involves stimulation to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or DLPFC).
There are more potential medical applications too. For instance, increased plasticity could be useful for those recovering from stroke or injury who need to re-learn motor movements.
Is it Safe?
Obviously the major concern with something like this is whether or not it is safe. Indeed research conducted in rats suggests that the process is unlikely to cause any kind of damage (6).
That said though, there is definitely a large element of risk involved if you’re trying to create your own tDCS device or if you’re buying one online. Poorly designed stimulators can leave you at risk of exposure to currents above the safe threshold. Meanwhile, medical implants and conditions such as epilepsy can also cause problems. The effects also have not been tested in those under the age of 18, when the brain is still highly plastic.
For now then, this is not a technology that is ready for public consumption. With further testing though and the development of more carefully controlled devices, this could certainly be a very interesting field in the future.