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Zapping your way to a better brain: miracle or myth?

ByFatemeh Amini

Mar 11, 2020

It is no real surprise that the average contemporary human being is beguiled by the concept of bettering
themselves through the use of technology. Considering the range of seemingly impossible feats realised using products of the constantly developing field, why would we not then wonder the improvements to our own mental or physical agility that could be possible by similar means?

The mysterious and unchartered territories of the organ sitting within the confines of our skull has been a major target of these investigations. In more than one instance, a method developed as a solution for one problem has been re-appropriated as a means of advancing the functional ‘abilities’ of the brain. Most people will be familiar with drugs such as Modafinil and Ritalin, initially developed as treatments for narcolepsy and ADHD respectively, and now widely used as study drugs to give a boost above academic competition. In a similar way, neurostimulation technology has made a foray from the medical field to the controversial world of self improvement. Neurostimulation is the process of activating or inhibiting groups of neurons in the brain by applying electricity to them. Implantable stimulators have been used in patients who have undergone spinal cord surgery for the purposes of preventing prevent a brain haemorrhage or coma, as well as to mediate epilepsy, chronic pain, bladder function and movement disorders.

A recent study by Transparency Market Research reports that the global neurostimulation device market is expected to exhibit substantial growth from 2019-2027. In light of this, it may be pertinent to examine the effect that the increasingly prevalent use of neurostimulation devices is having on the general public. With its heightened application in medical circles, the number of media reports referring to neurostimulation have similarly increased. This is not surprising, considering the appetite of audiences for methods of ‘training’ their brains to become more ‘active’ and ‘flexible’ – all terms that fall under the contentious category of ‘neuro-hype’. In the process of condensing and simplifying scientific information to be appropriate for a lay audience, it is easy for science journalists to overemphasise how shiny, new and exciting all of these technologies are, whilst under-emphasising the severe consequences of their misuse. This is likely the major culprit behind the medically unadvised use of a particular neurostimulation device – called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – by nonexperts for purposes of brain enhancement. In the world of research, the capacity of tDCS to ameliorate the symptoms of major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are being investigated. A study published by Progress in Neuro Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry at the close of 2019 reports that tDCS may be an effective stand-alone therapeutic approach, or one that could be used alongside other treatment methods such as antidepressant drugs.

While the medical potential of tDCS continues to be explored under controlled conditions, affordable and easy-to-use versions of the device have been circulated among medically inexperienced individuals who simply want to better themselves. Informed by over-zealous media sources that anyone could improve their mood, creativity, memory and learning capacity by purchasing a hand-held device for under £200, these curious individuals zap different parts of their skull and fervently wait to see changes in their mental function. Since tDCS devices are currently sold only to enhance ‘wellness’ rather than to treat any medical conditions, they are not under regulatory control of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This in turn means that the quality of devices sold to the general public cannot be ensured. Many home users are enthusiastic about the effects of self-administered tDCS, and extensive Reddit forums are dedicated to individuals advising one another on its application and results. This, however, is counterbalanced by the high probability of the placebo effect being responsible for observations in improved performance. An additional issue is the prevailing misconception that certain, fixed parts of the brain are responsible for the execution of particular functions. The complexity of neural systems mean that haphazardly applying electrical pulses – despite the current used in tDCS devices being relatively low – is ill-advised, particularly considering the unavoidably crude positioning of the handset when used at in an informal setting. This is not to mention potential side effects of burns or disarming visual phenomena such as sudden flashes of light. The portable and user friendly nature of tDCS gives it a positive outlook in terms of empowering individuals to self manage conditions such as depression using medication-free means, assuming that its positive influence on symptoms is established reliably. Its infiltration into the increasingly radical realm of self-improvement is, however, less encouraging.

Perhaps giving greater consideration for the accuracy of science journalism would keep media sensationalism within bounds: undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Acknowledging that tDCS is used in a medical capacity, whether in an official environment or otherwise, would also introduce regulations to its manufacture and distribution that would protect users to a greater degree. As the breadth of neurotechnologies continues to balloon, the necessity for regulatory bodies to be prepared for their unauthorised use is certainly heightened. The promise of realising one’s potential is undeniably exciting, but it should never overshadow the importance of protecting the powerful yet delicate organ that is, after all, the reason behind it all in the first place.


Image: via Pixabay