In the new age of mass-produced miniaturized technology, people have been tinkering with all sorts of gadgets for their personal projects. A new fad has emerged in the do-it-yourself (DIY) community with the discovery of a variety of effects from electrically shocking the brain. Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is the process of stimulating the brain with a constant low current. It is becoming very popular with amateur scientists today. Because of its noninvasive nature and its relatively cheap cost, tDCS is extremely appealing as an opportunity to discover more about the human brain.
Neurostimulation is not a new concept and has been explored for nearly 200 years. One of the very first uses of electrical magnetic stimulation was in 1751 when Charles Le Roy, a French surgeon, tried to produce light sensations in a blind man’s eyes that could not receive any light. The visual effects discovered were called phosphenes and can be caused by movement, electrostimulus, or psychoactive chemicals. In 1896, Jacques-Arsène d’Arsonval, a French physician, observed the effects of vertigo and dizziness when people worked in power stations and also noted phosphenes along with other temporary side effects. In 1912, the New York Times advertised electromagnetic generators for home convenience as an attempt to improve general health and education and even experimented with them in a classroom setting.
In 2010, a psychological study published by Saarland University reported that touch, cognitive, attentional and emotional sense were all enhanced by tDCS, and various brain diseases saw improvement through its use. It seems like a scientific superpower that provides a free IQ boost. Because of studies like these, the primary function of tDCS became medical, but grand claims on the benefits of tDCS use have spurred the general public. An increasing number of blogs and forums are showing up on the internet where people claim to be undergoing tDCS treatments for years. A Reddit subforum was created for DIY fanatics and controlled study patients alike to exchange stories and device logistics. tDCS only uses up to two milliamps of electricity to function, far less than a light bulb, and cheap parts can be ordered for as little as $5 to $10 up to high tech $300 solutions like Foc.us, a device marketed for gamers.
Although the brain has been mapped out and studied extensively, very little is understood about its role in cognitive and visual perception. Many patients with mental illnesses have been helped by tDCS, and there is a lot to discover, but I am skeptical to experiment on myself. Safety has only been the subject of concern within the field for the past 10 years or so, and little is known about the long term effects of tDCS exposure. Dr. Vincent Walsh from University College London discussed difficulties with analyzing the effects of tDCS on the brain at a summit on tDCS at the UC-Davis Center for the Mind and Brain. He explained that expectations and physiological hypotheses were poorly defined in scientific studies regarding tDCS including his own and no new information on mental function has been definitively discovered. With such uncertainty I am hesitant to pick up a soldering iron and some cheap electrodes and discourage others from self-experimentation as well.