Fast Charge for Super-Brains: tDCS Brain Boosting

…how can a minuscule amount of electricity, applied to the skull for 20 minutes or so, like jumper cables for the brain, make people think better?

Making Every Brain Spock’s Brain

On Friday the 13th of September, in an old brick building on 13th Street in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, a pair of electrodes was attached to my forehead, one over my brain’s left prefrontal cortex, the other just above my right eye socket. I was about to undergo transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, an experimental technique for delivering extremely low dose electrical stimulation to the brain. Using less than 1 percent of the electrical energy necessary for electroconvulsive therapy, powered by an ordinary nine-volt battery, tDCS has been shown in hundreds of studies to enhance an astonishing, seemingly implausible variety of intellectual, emotional and movement-related brain functions. And its side effects appear limited to a mild tingling at the site of the electrode, sometimes a slight reddening of the skin, very rarely a headache and certainly no seizures or memory loss. Still, I felt more than a bit apprehensive as I prepared to find out if a little bit of juice could amp up my cognitive reserves and make me, in a word, smarter.

… studies have found it can improve everything from working memory to long-term memory, math calculations, reading ability, solving difficult problems, piano playing, complex verbal thought, planning, visual memory, the ability to categorize, the capacity for insight, post-stroke paralysis and aphasia, chronic pain and even depression. Effects have been shown to last for weeks or months. __NYT

Electromagnetic stimulation of the brain is an idea hundreds of years old. But modern science is just now making a serious study of technologies such as tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) for the treatment of everyday problems, such as headaches, depression, stroke rehab, and more . . .

Since tDCS — in its cruder forms — is so easy for anyone to use, more and more adventurous cerebronauts are hacking their own stimulators at home, to keep focus while studying, learn a foreign language, and much more.

…tDCS [is] a way to tease apart the mechanisms of learning and cognition. As the technique is refined, researchers could, with the flick of a switch, amplify or mute activity in many areas of the brain and watch what happens behaviourally. The field is “going to explode very soon and give us all sorts of new information and new questions”, says Clark. And as with some other interventions for stimulating brain activity, such as high-powered magnets or surgically implanted electrodes, researchers are attempting to use tDCS to treat neurological conditions, including depression and stroke. But given the simplicity of building tDCS devices, one of the most important questions will be whether it is ethical to tinker with healthy minds — to improve learning and cognition, for example. The effects seen in experimental settings “are big enough that they would definitely have real-world consequences”, says Martha Farah, a neuroethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. _Nature

tDCS on the cheap
The image above displays an extremely crude tDCS rig, but it stupidly neglects to show that the anode (+ lead) and the cathode (- lead) must be applied to the scalp in at least two different locations, some distance apart.

Here is a short description of how to do the crudest form of tDCS at home (not recommended):

One (1) brain, inside skull
One (1) 9-volt battery
Two (2) wires
Two (2) damp sponges


Attach battery to wires, attach wires to sponges, attach sponges to skull, one over each eyebrow. Simmer once a day until mental health reaches a firm consistency.

It sounds like something you dreamed up in the basement with your stoner friends in high school. (In fact, you may actually have done so.) But transcranial direct current stimulation is the hottest thing to hit the improvisational health management scene since acupuncture. A growing body of evidence suggests that sticking a battery onto your head could hack into your brain’s operating system and make life generally more worth living. Think of it as Norton Utilities for the mind.

That’s not an oversimplification of the process. tDCS is literally that simple. The total cost of a treatment is less than $5 of parts from Radio Shack and a sponge. No prescription needed. No needles, no pills, no insurance companies, no weird hormonal fluctuations, no commercials saying “I’m glad [drug of choice] has a low risk of sexual side effects!”

An analysis of the pros and cons of tDCS yields fairly impressive results.

Improved hand-eye coordination
Better memory
Less depression
Recover from brain damage
Less senility
Me talks nice like teacher
Better memory
Control seizures
Cure migraines
Become superior human, crush puny unenhanced inferiors, survive apocalyptic “rise of the machines”
Better memory

Could end up looking stupid
Small, but not entirely absent, chance of permanent brain damage _longecity

As noted above, this overly-simple approach to tDCS is not recommended due to lack of control of DC current levels to which the brain is being exposed.

[Michael] Weisend, who is working on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme to accelerate learning, has been using this form of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers. From the electrodes, a 2-milliamp current will run through the part of my brain associated with object recognition – an important skill when visually combing a scene for assailants.

The mild electrical shock is meant to depolarise the neuronal membranes in the region, making the cells more excitable and responsive to inputs. Like many other neuroscientists working with tDCS, Weisend thinks this accelerates formation of new neural pathways during the time that someone practises a skill. The method he is using on me boosted the speed with which wannabe snipers could detect a threat by a factor of 2.3 (Experimental Brain Research, vol 213, p 9).

Mysteriously, however, these long-term changes also seem to be preceded by a feeling that emerges as soon as the current is switched on and is markedly similar to the flow state. “The number one thing I hear people say after tDCS is that time passed unduly fast,” says Weisend. Their movements also seem to become more automatic; they report calm, focused concentration – and their performance improves immediately.

It’s not yet clear why some forms of tDCS should bring about the flow state. After all, if tDCS were solely about writing new memories, it would be hard to explain the improvement that manifests itself as soon as the current begins to flow. _NewScientist

The electrodes must be correctly placed to achieve the particular desired goals for each session. Incorrect placement of electrodes can give counter-productive results.

Intensity of DC current should be controlled by known resistances or by current regulation electronic devices. Always run your tDCS system from batteries — never from line current!

Duration of sessions should be kept to about 20 minutes. Any significant discomfort should be taken as a signal to end the session immediately.

It is still too early to determine just what can be achieved through the use of electromagnetic brain stimulation devices, such as tDCS or TMS. But home experimentation is fairly safe as long as current flow is limited to around 2 milliamperes, and small 9 volt batteries are used as current sources, rather than line current.

The above article was largely adapted from earlier articles at the original Al Fin, The Next Level and Al Fin Potpourri.


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