Put on your thinking cap: What’s the deal with tDCS?by Alejandro Marcano on Feb 4, 2015 • 2:12 pm
Disclaimer: This post is by no means intended as medical advice, even when written by a fully accredited medical professional. No information depicted here should be considered medical advice. This article portrays the current available information as to the date of its publishing. If you choose to use the information in this post, you do so under your own responsibility.
We all know that our brains work with nervous impulses that are basically electrical currents that are transmitted from one brain cell to another. So it only took one wicked-minded researcher to ask the question: what would happen if you zap the brain with electrical current? would it change how the nervous impulse work? would it stimulate brain cells? could it turn you into Spiderman’s Electro?
That’s what tDCS is. tDCS stands for trans-cranial Direct Current Stimulation. It is the application of external electrical current to the brain, through the skull, with the goal of modifying brain function. It is thought that this modification would amplify some functions in your brain and turn you into some kind of a super cognitive thinker or an ultra fast learner or a mind reader (maybe?). These beliefs have led many vanguardists to engage in the DIY approach, building their own tDCS machines and zapping their own brains to see if they could achieve this level of mega mind status. Others wanted to harvest the powers of this magic technique to treat their own emotional and behavioral conditions (think depression and OCD).
Application of electricity to the brain was first mentioned more than 200 years ago (probably when Ben Franklin was flying his kite he stuck the key into his ear). Afterwards, many animal studies were carried away, people zapping rats’ heads and observing their behavior. It was not until recently (the past decade) when tDCS gained notoriety. Some promising studies demonstrated that tDCS could actually modulate some human cerebral functions by stimulating specific regions of the brain, and these modulated changes would be prolonged yet reversible and —more importantly— measurable.
Uses range from treating depression and improving mood, to learning motor skills and improving dexterity. Others have claimed positive results for pain relief, post-stroke deficit treatment, improving general intelligence or reasoning ability, improving numerical skills, cognitive enhancement and improving creativity. There is even one device that is specifically marketed for gamers. The desired effect depends on the type of montage that is used to stimulate the brain (i.e. the zones in the skull where the electrodes are placed making the current flow from one electrode to the other, through the brain).
DIY advocates who want to think faster or have sharper reflexes, maybe even have superhuman attention, are all over the internet boasting about their results. Thankfully, tDCS is a cheap, non-invasive, painless and relatively safe technique and no big adverse effects have been reported. Nonetheless, as a warning to the reader: it is important to know how long to zap your brain and at what intensity.
Reddit has its own section for all of these DIY tDCS fans. Perhaps here is where the majority of the available information about tDCS is gathered. There are many users who experiment with different electrode positions and post their results and others less daring who want to ask questions before adventuring into a conservative electrode montage.
However, none of these claims can be taken as serious results, not to say advice. Come on people! We’re serious scientists!!!
So as every good and self-respected science guy would do, I decided to take matters into my own hands and experiment on myself. I am in the process of learning the very difficult and honorable nordic language of Swedish. Serving as my own comparison control, I undertook the process of learning Swedish words using Anki and measured how many words I could successfully learn in one week without tDCS during daily one hour learning sessions. I then compared this result with the amount of words I learned after one week using a language enhancing tDCS montage (one electrode in zone Cp5 and the other above the right eye) for 20 min at 1.5 mA before my learning session.
The awesome guys at Neurolectrics Inc. hooked me up with a fully equipped Brain Stimulator device for this sacrifice I was willing to do for science. This is such a well-built device, it transpires quality, you can see that they followed high standards when building it. I even tested that the voltage that it transmits was accurate. This little blue box of magic comes fully packed with different adhesive electrodes, alligator electrode adapters that attach to sponges, and its very own headband to hold them to your head. And to top it all, it has a very affordable price of $90 (for the basic kit) as compared to $379 and $150 from other available devices.
As others have described, I also felt the little tingling sensation at the beginning of the sessions but it promptly faded away after a couple of minutes. Nothing evidently notable was felt afterwards, I didn’t feel sharper, or smarter. I didn’t become an instant polyglot or a mind reader either. Although I did kind of knew that my wife was mad at me because I left the toilet seat up…
The results are in! After the first week without tDCS I successfully learned a total of 141 Swedish words. Skål! I felt like I could become a Nobel Laureate already. Then after wearing my thinking cap and looking like an extraterrestrial for a week I was able to learn a whooping 179 Swedish words! I should attach some horns to my Brain Stimulator headband as I am a Viking now. Thanks almighty Thor for shocking my brain with your powerful hammer of thunder! Although it is hard to credit this difference to the tDCS by itself, it is still a difference. Other possible factors that must be taken into account are the fact that I could have built up my knowledge on top of the words that I learned on the first week or that I already had formed an habit for the second week and became more skilled at learning Swedish words. Maybe I should test myself again but doing the tDCS sessions on the first week.
Verdict: Although results were positive in this adventure of self-experimentation, they are not enough for me to strongly affirm that tDCS works (I am blind at something that is happening in front of me). Scientific evidence has to be clear and robust. For now we’re just treading in the fields of DIY and YMMV with this method. However the future seems promising for this technology, it has all the characteristics for being successful: it’s cheap, non-invasive and painless… It just needs to prove itself. Currently, there are many quality trials that are being conducted to further study this technology with the expectation to find beneficial uses in the future.
The ball is in your court
What are your experiences with tDCS? Do you have any ideas that could improve the use of tDCS?
…keep pushing forward