Zapping Their Brains at Home


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Gérard DuBois

EARLIER this month, in the journal Annals of Neurology, four neuroscientists published an open letter to practitioners of do-it-yourself brain stimulation. These are people who stimulate their own brains with low levels of electricity, largely for purposes like improved memory or learning ability. The letter, which was signed by 39 other researchers, outlined what is known and unknown about the safety of such noninvasive brain stimulation, and asked users to give careful consideration to the risks.

For the last three years, I have been studying D.I.Y. brain stimulators. Their conflict with neuroscientists offers a fascinating case study of what happens when experimental tools normally kept behind the closed doors of academia — in this case, transcranial direct current stimulation — are appropriated for use outside them.

Neuroscientists began experimenting in earnest with transcranial direct current stimulation about 15 years ago. In such stimulation, electric current is administered at levels that are hundreds of times less than those used in electroconvulsive therapy. To date, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies of the technique have been published. Studies have suggested, among other things, that the stimulation may be beneficial for treating problems like depression and chronic pain as well as enhancing cognition and learning in healthy individuals.

The device scientists use for stimulation is essentially a nine-volt battery attached to two wires that are connected to electrodes placed at various spots on the head. A crude version can be constructed with just a bit of electrical know-how. Consequently, as reports of the effects of the technique began to appear in scientific journals and in newspapers, people began to build their own devices at home. By late 2011 and early 2012, diagrams, schematics and videos began to appear online.

Today, tinkering skills are no longer needed, as there are approximately a dozen direct-to-consumer devices available for purchase by the public. A majority of people who use the technique at home hope to improve their learning or memory, but a significant proportion are self-treating depression, anxiety or A.D.H.D.

When scientists learned there were lay users of the technique, they reacted with alarm. While stimulation is not known to have caused any serious injuries, it is unclear if long-term use may harm cognition. Some bioethicists predicted home use would become widespread, with parents routinely stimulating their children’s brains.

But such predictions have not come true. Home use remains a subculture, part of the contemporary movement to “hack” one’s body — using supplements, brain-training games and self-tracking devices — to optimize productivity.

And while D.I.Y. brain stimulators are often characterized as reckless and foolhardy, my research has led me to view them differently. I have conducted long interviews with dozens of D.I.Y. stimulators, both in person and via Skype; collected hundreds of questionnaire responses; and tracked online forums, websites, blogs and other platforms on which practitioners communicate. I’ve found that they are — for the most part — astute, inventive and resourceful.

Figuring out how to stimulate your own brain requires work. To determine where to place the electrodes and what level of current to use, these individuals rely heavily on scientific journal articles. Though they occasionally stimulate more often, and for longer periods of time, than do scientific researchers, I’ve found (as I reported last year in The Journal of Medical Ethics) that users adhere to many of the protocols used in scientific studies.

As neuroscientists continue to conduct brain stimulation experiments, publish results in journals and hold conferences, the D.I.Y. practitioners have remained quiet downstream listeners, blogging about scientists’ experiments, posting unrestricted versions of journal articles and linking to videos of conference talks. Some practitioners create their own manuals and guides based on published papers.

The growth of D.I.Y. brain stimulation stems in part from a larger frustration with the exclusionary institutions of modern medicine, such as the exorbitant price of pharmaceuticals and the glacial pace at which new therapies trickle down to patients. For people without an institutional affiliation, even reading a journal article can be prohibitively expensive.

The open letter this month is about safety. But it is also a recognition that these D.I.Y. practitioners are here to stay, at least for the time being. While the letter does not condone, neither does it condemn. It sticks to the facts and eschews paternalistic tones in favor of measured ones. The letter is the first instance I’m aware of in which scientists have directly addressed these D.I.Y. users. Though not quite an olive branch, it is a commendable step forward, one that demonstrates an awareness of a community of scientifically involved citizens.

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