electric brain

Warning over electrical brain stimulation
by Melissa Hogenboom / 23 August 2014

Given the option, would you want to think faster and have sharper attention? Research suggests that electrical brain stimulation kits could have just those effects. But now some companies are selling such devices online, leading to calls to regulate the technology. It may sound too good to be true but scientists say the technology is promising. Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which passes small electrical currents directly on to the scalp, stimulates the nerve cells in the brain (neurons). It’s non-invasive, extremely mild and the US military even uses TDCS in an attempt to improve the performance of its drone pilots.

Monkey cortex https://brmlab.cz/project/brain_hacking/tdcs

The idea is that it makes the neurons more likely to fire and preliminary research suggests electrical simulation can improve attention as well as have a positive impact on people with cognitive impairments and depression. It has also been shown to increase performance in a maths task, an improvement which was still in place six months later. The scientist behind this work is Dr Roy Cohen Kadosh from the University of Oxford. He uses TDCS to look at how cognitive functions improve. He says: “Research has shown that by delivering electricity to the right part of the brain, we can change the threshold of neurons that transmit information in our brain, and by doing that we can improve cognitive abilities in different types of psychological functions.” Studies like his are perhaps why commercial companies are jumping on the technology and largely promoting it as a way to help gamers get ahead. “A headset for gamers, take charge… Overclock your brain,” is how one company promotes it. Another states: “Can you learn 20-40% quicker, reduce pain, feel better, increase energy or reduce stress with tDCS? Research studies say, YES!”

‘Unintended results’
But if these devices are used in the wrong way, scientists say they could be harmful. “If they make claims about gaming, that is very far removed from the sort of treatment claims that might be to do with helping stroke patients or people suffering from depression,” warns Hannah Maslen from the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University. The electrodes of one device seen by the Oxford Martin School (above) are positioned so they stimulate the area of the brain under the forehead. This is where the pre-frontal cortex is situated, involved in high-level cognition such as attention. But in Dr Cohen Kadosh’s lab, electrical stimulation is used in a controlled environment for no more than 20 minutes at a time and only on participants who have passed strict medical checks. Scientists are, after all, applying electrodes to the brain – which they say could have some unintended results. For example, different brain regions than those intended might be affected and, in some instances, stimulation could impair rather than improve function if the polarity of the stimulation is reversed. Dr Cohen Kadosh says: “You can use stimulation that might not be beneficial for you, you need to know how long to stimulate, at what time to stimulate and what intensity to use.” Recently, another team of researchers have pleaded for “calm and caution” for these devices when it comes to the developing brain because of the known risks. These can include seizures and mood changes. Author of this work, Nick Davis from Swansea University, explains that because the brain continues to develop until the age of 20, stimulation in this age group would have a stronger impact.

Cognitive enhancement device in the lab
Electrical stimulation devices at Oxford University

And more worryingly for him, people are also increasingly making brain stimulation kits themselves. This easily “puts the technology in the realms of clever teenagers,” adds Dr Davis. An active forum on reddit is devoted to the technology, and people there have complained of “burning to the scalp”. Another user wrote that they “seemed to be getting angry frequently” after using TDCS. “These are the people who are probably going to do it at a higher dosage than a scientist or clinician would give to a patient and are less aware of the potential risks,” says Dr Davis. These sorts of issues are why a team from the Oxford Martin school at Oxford University is now calling calling for regulation of the commercially sold devices. One company selling the devices, foc.us, sent the Oxford Martin School a device for their research.

In its manual, it warns that those under 18 and those with existing health conditions such as epilepsy should not use the device. It says to watch out for side-effects including white-flashes, nausea, headache and fatigue. It also warns to look out for tingling and redness. It says: “If you see white flashes (known as phosphenes), adjust the position of the foc.us headset away from your eyes”. The BBC tried to contact foc.us for further comment but did not receive a reply. Lead author of this paper, Dr Maslen, explains that as they are marketed to gamers and do not make any treatment claims, they avoid the need for regulation. “If you were to make a treatment claim, that the device would alleviate symptoms or treat a recognised disease or illness, the device would automatically fall under the medical devices directive and the legislation associated with that.” Her team does not want to restrict access to cognitive enhancement devices but wants consumers to have “the information they need to assess what risks they are willing to take in pursuit of which potential benefits”.

Another concern is that the science behind these devices is not ready for the commercial market, something Steven Novella a neurologist at Yale University has raised. He says that companies are jumping on the hype of research that is not quite ready for the world because it “sounds very advanced and sexy”. There’s lots of published evidence that could make it seem as if these are proven therapies but I think the marketing is a couple of steps ahead of the science. “Any device with medical claims that it’s meant to affect our biological function should be appropriately regulated. Regulation is the only thing that creates the motivation to spend the money and take the time to do the proper research,” he adds. Suggestions of increased attention and the alleviation of certain medical conditions means interest in electrical stimulation is bound to increase but if the research continues to show promising results it’s clear that TDCS will need to be treated with some caution.

Brain Stimulation Unit, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

DIY Kit Overclocks Your Brain With Direct Current
by Christopher Mims   /  March 8, 2012

It turns out that one of the ways you can speed up a microprocessor – shoving more current into it – also works on the human brain. The technique is called transcranial direct current stimulation, and while bioethicists are debating whether or not it’s ethical to use it to enhance learning in children, hobbyists have figured out how to try it out at home. Think of it as the new Adderall – without, apparently, the side effects. Now, the first thing I have to say in this post about how to overclock your brain with a straightforward 20-minute application of electrical current is DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. The long-term effects of TDCS are unknown, and if you mess up and put orders of magnitude more current through your brain than is typically used in TDCS, obviously, you could kill yourself. Now that we have that out of the way, here’s how to try it at home. GoFlow is a startup planning to offer TDCS kits for as little as $99.

GoFlow claims that their product can help speed up learning – an effect that’s already been demonstrated by the Air Force and in the lab. “Air Force researchers were delighted recently to learn that they could cut [the time required to train drone pilots] in half by delivering a mild electrical current (two milliamperes of direct current for 30 minutes) to pilot’s brains during training sessions on video simulators.

Compliant head probe for positioning electroencephalography electrodes and near-infrared spectroscopy optodes

There is also evidence that TDCS can induce the state of creative nirvana known as “flow.” When done correctly by a licensed physician, TDCS is safe enough that it’s already being used clinically to treat chronic pain. The GoFlow, on the other hand, appears to have been built by undergraduates. Given the (lack of) production values in their promotional video, I’m not all that reassured by the included testimonial from a neuroscience graduate student. If you can’t wait for the GoFlow kids to get their act together, the Journal of Visual Experiments has an elaborate video tutorial demonstrating the finer points of TDCS administration.

Foc.us tDCS headset

Foc.us: The first commercial tDCS headset that lets you safely overclock your brain
by  / July 30, 2013

After an interminable wait, the first brain-boosting tDCS headset has finally received FCC approval and will begin shipping in the next few days. Dubbed the Foc.us, the headset jolts your prefrontal cortex with electricity, improving your focus, reaction time, and ability to learn new skills. The Foc.us is being targeted at gamers looking to improve their skillz, but tDCS has the potential to improve — or more accurately to overclock — almost every aspect of your life. To give its full name, tDCS stands for transcranial direct current stimulation.

Transcranial simply means that the direct current (i.e. from a battery rather than the AC mains) is passed across a region of your brain. In the case of the Foc.us, the direct current passes between the cathode and anode, which are placed over your prefrontal cortex. Basically, by pumping electrons into your brain, your neurons, which communicate via spikes of electricity, become more excitable. This means that they can fire more quickly, improving your reaction time. Furthermore, when you remove the current, your neurons are imbued with additional neuroplasticity — in other words, they more readily make new connections, improving your ability to learn new skills.

The amount of current used is very small — on the order of two milliamps, much less than the current a 9V battery delivers — and in theory there’s very little risk. The Foc.us website says you shouldn’t use tDCS if you suffer from epilepsy, and that you shouldn’t use tDCS to treat any medical conditions. In reality, tDCS has no known short-term risks. Early studies have shown that tDCS, which can also be used to stimulate regions of the brain other than the prefrontal cortex, such as the motor cortex, can provide therapeutic effects to people suffering from Parkinson’s, stroke patients, and more.

DARPA has already used tDCS to reduce the time it takes to train new snipers, and university research groups have used it to improve the performance of gamers. In less formal settings — i.e. DIY enthusiasts — tDCS has been used to improve almost every area of cognition, or to release the brain’s most powerful opioid painkillers.

If the gains from tDCS really are as amazing as these early reports suggest, there could be some serious ethical considerations if tDCS becomes widespread. Should students be allowed to use tDCS to improve their studies or to pass exams? What about professional e-sports gamers? If one team starts using tDCS to improve their reaction time and actions per minute (APM), other teams will have no option but to start using it — unless tDCS becomes the electronic equivalent of doping and is quickly outlawed, of course.

Grau et al/PLOS One

Brain-to-brain verbal communication in humans achieved for the first time
A team of researchers has successfully achieved brain-to-brain human communication using non-invasive technologies across a distance of 5,000 miles
by  /  September 3, 2014

Humans just got a step closer to being able to think a message into someone else’s brain on the other side of the world: in a first-of-its-kind study, an international team of researchers has successfully achieved brain-to-brain transmission of information between humans. The team, comprising researchers from Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Starlab Barcelona in Spain, and Axilum Robotics in Strasbourg, France, used a number of technologies that enabled them to send messages from India to France — a distance of 5,000 miles (8046.72km) — without performing invasive surgery on the test subjects.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI)

“We wanted to find out if one could communicate directly between two people by reading out the brain activity from one person and injecting brain activity into the second person, and do so across great physical distances by leveraging existing communication pathways,” said co-author Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. “One such pathway is, of course, the internet, so our question became, ‘Could we develop an experiment that would bypass the talking or typing part of internet and establish direct brain-to-brain communication between subjects located far away from each other in India and France ?'”

Using a combination of internet-connected electroencephalogram and robot-assisted, image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (which, as the name suggests, uses electromagnetic induction to stimulate the brain from the outside), the team was able to communicate words from one human to another. The team used a similar set-up to that commonly used in brain-computer interface studies. A human subject had electrodes attached to their scalp, which recorded electrical currents in the brain as the subject had a specific thought. Usually, this is interpreted by a computer and translated to a control output, such as a robotic arm, or a drone. In this case, though, the output target was another human.

The emitter on the left being shown the binary code, and the receiver on the right 

The study had four participants, aged between 28 and 50. One participant was assigned to the brain-computer interface to transmit the thought, while the other three were assigned to the computer-brain interface to receive the thought. At the BCI end, the words “Ciao” and “Hola” were translated into binary. This was then shown to the emitter subject, who was instructed to envision actions for each piece of information: moving their hands for a 1 or their feet for a 0. An EEG then captured the electrical information in the sender’s brain as they thought of these actions, which resulted in a sort of neural code for the binary symbols — which in turn was code for the words. This information was then sent to the three recipient subjects via TMS headsets, stimulating the visual cortex so that the recipient, with ears and eyes covered, saw the binary string as a series of bright lights in their peripheral vision: if the light appeared in one location, it was a 1, and the second location denoted a 0. This information was received successfully and decoded as the transmitted words.

This experiment, the researchers said, represents an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional means of communication, despite its current limitations — the bit rates were, for example, quite low at two bits per minute. Potential applications, however, include communicating with stroke patients, for example. “We anticipate that computers in the not-so-distant future will interact directly with the human brain in a fluent manner, supporting both computer- and brain-to-brain communication routinely,” the team concluded. “The widespread use of human brain-to-brain technologically mediated communication will create novel possibilities for human interrelation with broad social implications that will require new ethical and legislative responses.” You can read the full study online in the journal PLOS One.

Image: Marom Bikson, Kamran Nazim, and Dennis Truong. CCNY
A common two-electrode set up for tDCS. Warm colors on indicate the current spread through the brain predicted by a computer model. Image: Marom Bikson, Kamran Nazim, and Dennis Truong / CCNY

Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication Between Humans Demonstrated
by Emily Waltz  /  4 Sep 2014

In an experiment that one rival scientist dubbed a “stunt,” Spanish researchers claim to be the first to have demonstrated direct brain-to-brain communication between humans. The researchers, led by Giulio Ruffini, CEO of Starlab in Barcelona, successfully transmitted the words “hola” and “ciao” in binary code from the brain of a person in India to the brains of three people in France. Electroencephalography (EEG), which monitors electric currents in the brain, was used to record the information from the sender’s brain, and robotized transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which causes neurons to fire from an electric current that is generated by a rapidly changing magnetic field, was used to deliver the message to the brains of the receivers in France.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI)

Researchers have for years been developing noninvasive systems for translating information directly from the human brain to the computer. These systems, called brain-computer interface, often involve brain activity-sensing tools such as EEG, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), and functional magnetic resonance imagine (fMRI). Researchers have also, to a lesser extent, experimented with translating information from the computer to the brain, using brain stimulating tools such as TMS — variations of which have also been used to treat depression — and transcranial focused ultrasound (FUS), which has been used to link the brains of rats. The Starlab experiment integrates two of these existing technologies to move a message from human brain to computer to human brain. The experiment was set up like this: While hooked up to an EEG device the sender was asked to imagine moving his hands or feet when shown an image that represented a 1 or 0, respectively. The EEG data was transmitted to the computer, translated into binary code, and emailed to the system at the recipients’ end. The recipients, blindfolded, received electric pulses from the robotized TMS system in the visual cortex of their brains. That triggered the experience of phosphenes: the perception of seeing flashes of light that are not actually there. The recipients reported verbally when they experienced a flash, and this was translated into binary code and then to the message. It’s super slow — the equivalent of telepathic Morse code. Still, the message was delivered.

Image: Marom Bikson, Kamran Nazim, and Dennis Truong. CCNY

The authors published the experiment in PLoS One, describing it as “the first human brain-to-brain interface.” Ruffini at Starlab said the work stemmed from his company’s involvement in a four-year collaborative project funded by the European Commission to develop noninvasive brain stimulation technologies. The paper was “a way to show that our technologies work,” said Ruffini in a phone interview. It’s a fun experiment, and it’s exciting to think about potential (but far-fetched) applications, like soldiers with high-tech helmets communicating silently behind enemy lines. But some researchers not involved with the experiment say the paper doesn’t really present a “first” and smacks of publicity grubbing. It’s “pretty much a stunt I think as it’s all been shown before,” said Christopher James, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Warwick in the UK, in an email to IEEE Spectrum. A group at the University of Washington in Seattle led by Rajesh Rao last year demonstrated in an unpublished pilot study a very similar experiment involving EEG on the brain-to-computer end of the experiment and TMS on the computer-to-brain end.

In that study, the researchers stimulated the motor cortex of the brain, causing the message receiver’s hand to move subconsciously to strike a keyboard. The university declared it “the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface.” That was in August 2013. Rao told IEEE Spectrum he was “surprised and disappointed” that his experiment wasn’t acknowledged in some way in Ruffini’s paper. Ruffini says he had seen Rao’s experiment before publication of his, but that since it was unpublished “there was no paper to refer to.” And he maintains that his paper was no stunt. “I believe such comments stem from not having read carefully the paper and missing the point,” he says. Ruffini’s experiment adds to scientific literature because unlike previous work, including Rao’s, he stimulated the visual cortex, bypassing all peripheral nervous system involvement, and resulting in a conscious, rather than subconscious, brain-to-brain communication, Ruffini says. Rao’s experiment “is interesting work. But I don’t think’s it’s really brain-to-brain,” he says.

Getting a battery-assisted brain upgrade during sniper training

by Sally Adee / February 9, 2012

Have you ever wanted to take a vacation from your own head? You could do it easily enough with liberal applications of alcohol, weed or hallucinogens, but that’s not the kind of vacation I’m talking about. What if you could take a very specific vacation only from the stuff that makes it painful to be you: the sneering inner monologue that insists you’re not capable enough or smart enough or pretty enough or whatever hideous narrative rides you. Now that would be a vacation. You’d still be you, but you’d be able to navigate the world without the emotional baggage that now drags on your every decision. Can you imagine what that would feel like?

Late last year, I got the chance to find out, in the course of investigating a story (in this week’s New Scientist) about how researchers are using neurofeedback and electrical brain stimulation to accelerate learning. What I found was that electricity might be the most powerful drug I’ve ever used in my life. It used to be just plain old chemistry that had neuroscientists gnawing their fingernails about the ethics of brain enhancement. As Adderall, Ritalin and other cognitive enhancing drugs gain widespread acceptance as tools to improve your everyday focus, even the stigma of obtaining them through less than legal channels appears to be disappearing. People will overlook a lot of moral gray areas in the quest to juice their brain power.

But until recently, you were out of luck if you wanted to do that without taking drugs that might be addictivehabit-forming or associated with unfortunate behavioural side effects. Over the past few years, however, it’s become increasingly clear that applying an electrical current to your head confers similar benefits. US military researchers have had great success using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)– in which they hook you up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery and let the current flow through your brain. After a few years of lab testing, they’ve found that they can more than double the rate at which people learn a wide range of tasks such as object recognition, maths skills, and marksmanship.

We don’t yet have a commercially available “thinking cap” but we will soon. So the research community has begun to ask: What are the ethics of battery-operated cognitive enhancement? Last week a group of Oxford University neuroscientists released a cautionary statement about the ethics of brain boosting, followed quickly by a report from the UK’s Royal Society that questioned the use of tDCS for military applications. Is brain boosting a fair addition to the cognitive enhancement arms race? Will it create a Morlock/Eloi-like social divide where the rich can afford to be smarter and leave everyone else behind? Will Tiger Moms force their lazy kids to strap on a zappity helmet during piano practice?

After trying it myself, I have different questions. To make you understand, I am going to tell you how it felt. The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up. The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at. Then this happened:

The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it. It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks.

It’s possibly the world’s biggest cliche that we’re our own worst enemies. In yoga, they tell you that you need to “learn to get out of your own way.” Part of getting out of your own way is making those voices go away, exhuming the person you really are under all the geologic layers of narrative and  crosstalk that are constantly chattering in your brain. I think eventually these voices just become background noise. We stop hearing them consciously, but believe me, we listen to them just the same. Sometimes they’re anodyne distractors that tell us to look at the shiny thing or interrupt our focus to bleat that we forgot to buy milk. But most often their influence is destructive. They tell us in countless ways that we’re not good enough.

Me without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head; I’ve experienced something close to it during 2-hour Iyengar yoga classes, but the fragile peace in my head would be shattered almost the second I set foot outside the calm of the studio. I had certainly never experienced instant zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at. There were no unpleasant side effects. The bewitching silence of the tDCS lasted, gradually diminishing over a period of about three days. The inevitable reintroduction of self-doubt and inattention to my mind bore heartbreaking similarities to the plot of Flowers for Algernon.

I hope you can sympathize with me when I tell you that the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.* I also started to have a lot of questions. Who was I apart from the angry little bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I’m too scared to try? And where did those voices come from? Some of them are personal history, like the caustically dismissive 7th grade science teacher who advised me to become a waitress. Some of them are societal, like the hateful ladymag voices that bully me every time I look in a mirror. Invisible narrative informs all my waking decisions in ways I can’t even keep track of. What would a world look like in which we all wore little tDCS headbands that would keep us in a primed, confident state  free of all doubts and fears? Wouldn’t you wear the shit out of that cap? I certainly would. I’d wear one at all times and have two in my backpack ready in case something happened to the first one. I think the ethical questions we should be asking about tDCS are much more subtle than the ones we’ve been asking about cognitive enhancement. Because how you define “cognitive enhancement” frames the debate about its ethics.

If you told me tDCS will allow to someone to study twice as fast for the bar exam, I might be a little leery because now I have visions of rich daddies paying for Junior’s thinking cap. Neuroscientists like Roy Hamilton have termed this kind of application “cosmetic neuroscience,” which implies a kind of “first world problem” frivolity. But now think of a different application–could school-age girls use the zappy cap while studying math to drown out the voices that tell them they can’t do math because they’re girls? How many studies have found a link between invasive stereotypes and poor test performance? And then, finally, the main question: what role does doubt and fear play in our lives if its eradication actually causes so many improvements? Do we make more ethical decisions when we listen to our inner voices of self-doubt or when we’re freed from them? If we all wore these caps, would the world be a better place? And if tDCS headwear were to become widespread, will the same 20-minutes with a 2 milliamp current always deliver the same effects, or will you need to up your dose like you do with some other drugs? Because, to steal a great point from a Gizmodo commenter, pretty soon, a 9-volt battery may no longer be enough.

*As you might expect after this kind of evangelizing, the first thing I did when I got back from California was check how I could DIY my own contraption. And as you might expect, after reading the article, the commenters, letter-writers, and denizens of this monster Reddit thread wanted to know the same thing. I hereby shake off all liability for directing you to this page.  If you’re going to turn to unaccountable internet strangers for advice on the best way to send a current through your noodle, caveat lector and godspeed. I’m not involved. (and for fuck’s sake, just go enroll in a study at a nearby university)


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