It's the latest craze for people who want to improve their mental performance: zapping the brain with electricity to make it sharper and more focused. It's called "brain hacking," and some people are experimenting with it at home.
The idea's not completely crazy. Small jolts of electricity targeted at specific areas of the brain are used to treat diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson's, typically with tiny devices that must be surgically implanted.
One different, noninvasive technique is known as Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or tDCS. A low-intensity electrical current is passed through electrodes placed on the outside of the head. Some studies suggest that it could help treat conditions such as depression, anxiety and chronic pain. But what's interesting about tDCS is that anyone can do it, and for reasons that have nothing to do with disease.
Those reasons include learning more quickly, or becoming better at video games. Scientists have been experimenting for a decade to see whether tDCS can help the brain learn, and they've published dozens of papers on it. One study of Air Force pilots showed that those who received tDCS performed 25 percent better on training tests than those who received no brain stimulation. This has attracted the attention of people in the gaming community who think "brain hacking," as they call it, could help enhance their performance.
Take for example the Foc.us headset. According to claims on the device's website, the headset can increase the plasticity of the brain and makes the synapses fire faster, allowing gamers to focus better and score higher. The device isn't approved by the Food and Drug Administration and costs about $250. The price has prompted some gamers to try to make their own machines using simple instructions found on YouTube.
That's what Jared Seehafer did. He's a 28-year-old medical device consultant in San Francisco who heads the Bay Area Brain Hackers group.
He made his own tDCS machine using an elastic headband and a couple of electrodes. It's powered by a 9-volt battery and produces 1 to 2 milliamps of electricity, approximately what it takes to light one small LED bulb.
It's the same amount of electricity used in the lab by researchers such as Vincent Clark, director of the Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center at the University of New Mexico.
"We were interested in how can we take an average healthy person and improve their ability to learn something new," says Clark.
With funding from the Department of Defense, Clark set up an experiment in which subjects studied a series of complicated pictures. Hidden in each was a threatening object, such as a weapon or a suspicious package. The goal was to see how fast the subject could spot the objects with tDCS and without it.
"What we found," says Clark, "is that the people who received a full dose of tDCS learned twice as much in the same hour of training as people who received a very low dose of tDCS or no tDCS at all."
Clark is a big believer in tDCS. He thinks it could become a new kind of medicine with fewer side effects than drugs. Other researchers worry that the commercial and DIY experiments are not being properly controlled.
It's like making your own prescription drugs at home, says Marom Bikson, a professor of biomedical engineering at the City College of New York. It's the difference between a clinical drug trial that's being produced under strict quality control, or having people say, " 'Well, I can go to my kitchen, mix this stuff up.' What people would be doing at home in that situation wouldn't be safe," he says.
But batteries and electrodes are a lot easier to come by than the chemicals in drugs. That means that from a regulatory standpoint, tDCS will always be harder to control, says Hank Greely, a professor of law and bioethics at Stanford University. "If the FDA wanted to regulate it, how in the world could they regulate something where people can buy the raw materials for 25 bucks and make it themselves?"
Regulators are still trying to figure out whether tDCS has real and lasting therapeutic value, Greely says. After all, 2 milliamps is such a little amount of electricity, he points out. It's going to take many more years of strict clinical studies to determine whether tDCS is a therapy that could be useful or just another strange footnote in the long history of medicine.
Editor's note: This story was revised for clarity after it was first published.
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Today in Your Health - vape pens and a new, unpredictable way to smoke marijuana. But first, let's hear about electroceuticals. In addition to pharmaceuticals, illnesses like epilepsy and Parkinson's disease are at times treated with small doses of electricity to the brain. Some people, some healthy people, are trying this at home to boost brain power, raising questions about safety.
From member station KQED, Amy Standen reports.
AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Jared Seehafer is 28 and lives in San Francisco. He's trim, in good shape.
JARED SEEHAFER: I like distance hiking - 40, 50 miles, something like that?
STANDEN: Seehafer develops medical devices for a living, so he's interested in what's new in medicine. And a few years ago, he came across a research paper that caught his attention.
SEEHAFER: A study that the Air Force had done to test the skill acquisition for Predator drone pilots.
STANDEN: In the study, pilots performed better on this test after having a small amount of electricity applied to the outside of their heads. This is called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or tDCS. And usually it involves using one to two milliamps of electricity. That's roughly 1 percent of what it takes to power a light bulb. And it's painless.
Seehafer was intrigued.
SEEHAFER: If this were true, you could slap this on, it would make you 10 percent better at learning something. I think it's something a lot of people would be very interested in.
STANDEN: So he took some spare parts, duct tape, a nine-volt battery and made his own tDCS machine.
SEEHAFER: And slapped it together and tested it to see if it would work.
STANDEN: But to be a brain hacker, as this is called, you don't have to make your own machine. Consider the $250 Foc.us headset, which is marketed to gamers and has no FDA approval.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Foc.us headset uses transcranial direct current stimulation to send electricity into your frontal lobe, making your synapses fire faster.
STANDEN: There is real science behind this, at least in principle. Scientists have been experimenting with tDCS for a decade to see not just whether it can make us learn faster, but to address real problems like depression or chronic pain. They've published dozens of papers on it.
Marom Bikson has written several of them. He's a professor of biomedical engineering at the City College of New York. And he believes tDCS is promising, especially for patients who aren't helped by drugs that are on the market today.
MAROM BIKSON: There is evidently a need for a new branch of treatment. And tDCS may offer the potential for that.
STANDEN: But that's in a clinic, performed by people who know brain anatomy - where and how long to direct the current. Whether tDCS is something you could actually do at home safely and with measurable results, on that point Bikson is deeply skeptical.
BIKSON: It would sort of be like saying there's a clinical trial being running with a particular drug that's being produced in a factory under strict quality control. And then having people saying, well, I can go to my kitchen. I could start mixing all of this stuff up. And what people would be doing home in that situation wouldn't be safe.
STANDEN: In other words, you wouldn't try and cook up your own pharmaceuticals at home. So why do the same with electroceuticals? But batteries and electrodes are a lot easier to come by than the chemicals in drugs. Which means, from a regulatory standpoint, tDCS will always be hard to pin down, says Hank Greely, a professor of law and bioethics at Stanford University.
HANK GREELY: If the FDA wanted to regulate it, how in the world could they regulate something where people can buy the raw materials for 25 bucks and make it themselves?
STANDEN: At this point, Greely says regulators are still trying to figure out whether tDCS is the real thing with therapeutic value.
GREELY: I think the answer right now is we don't know.
STANDEN: After all, two milliamps is just so little electricity.
GREELY: Why nine volts of current going through your brain would have any effect is hard to imagine? They clearly seem to have some effects on some people.
SEEHAFER: OK, so why don't you try and...
STANDEN: Before Seehafer put away his tDCS machine, I asked if I could try it out myself. Sure, he said. He handed me a terrycloth headband to wear around my forehead - '70s tennis-player style. And then he dipped two electrodes in saline solution and slid them under the headband.
At first, nothing. Then, right where the electrodes are, I started to feel something tingly.
STANDEN: It stings a tiny bit.
STANDEN: After a few minutes, something subtler set in. It was hard to describe - kind of half mood change, half visual effect
There's a certain sort of brightness to things a little bit.
A telephone on the desk in front of me looked oddly crisper, as though I'd sharpened it in Photoshop. And is it possible I feel more energetic, kind of? Like a little more awake?
Now this was subtle. I may have just been imagining it, although I did notice when Seehafer secretly turned off his tDCS machine to test me. When I ask experts about it later, they say they're not surprised I felt something. But it's going to take many more years of strict clinical studies to see whether tDCS is a therapy that can be useful or just another strange footnote in the long history of medicine.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.