August 17, 2016
Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) is a technique for applying weak electrical energy to the brain via the skull, with the aim of activating neurons beyond normal activity. It’s not a new concept, and it can be done cheaply with off-the shelf kit costing as little as $40, or with commercial products recently put on the market. Preliminary research suggests that tDCS can enhance cognition, and relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other conditions. For this reason it’s been getting increasing attention in the media. However a new neuroscience paper published in the Annals of Neurology suggests there’s a distinct difference between scientific research and a DIY approach, suggesting that “Do-it-yourself” users of tDCS are exposing themselves to hidden risks. Signed by 39 prominent experts in the field, the paper warns against trying to replicate the results of studies because of the unpredictable outcomes of the stimulation and the fact that certain benefits may come at the expense of other neurological effects. The paper was written with the aim to clarify that home use of tDCS is not encouraged as it may cause harm to users. Among the key concerns raised were whether the stimulation affects brain regions beyond those targeted, what activities are suitable while receiving tDCS, the differences from person to person, the type of stimulation administered, and the fact that most research is focused on treating the symptoms of disease, as opposed to cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals.
From a research perspective tDCS is still relatively new. Although anyone can experiment with commercially available tDCS products, this level of consensus among the scientific community suggests more studies need to be completed to establish the efficacy and practical implications of this type of intervention before it is adopted for home use.
An open letter concerning do-it-yourself users of transcranial direct current stimulation
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