One of the reasons I started this blog was that I’ve recently learned about, and started experimenting with tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation). I first read about it in the Wired magazine, which was of course full of journalistic exaggeration, but the idea really made my head spin.
In tDCS, the brain is stimulated with an extremely weak (1-2 mA total) stream of direct current. This is not enough to fire neurons, but seems to have an effect on action potentials, and the neuroplasticity of the brain areas the current passes through. In clinical research, tDCS has been successfully used to alleviate depression, and to improve chances of recovery after brain damage.
The journalistic hysteria was, however, centered on another claim that researchers were making. That tDCS has the potential of improving cognition and learning ability in healthy humans – while being completely safe, as far as researchers can tell. The phrase of “putting one’s thinking cap on” has suddenly become quite literal.
That’s interesting in a way, but what really made this a breakthrough was the simplicity of the hardware required. There is no need for high voltage like in magnetic stimulation (TMS), or complex software. A simple low power current source and a pair of medical electrodes is all that is needed to replicate 95% of the clinical experiments. And thanks to this, a serious community of DIYers has sprung up.
While there are reckless idiots as anywhere else (some have taken a 9V battery, and connected it to their heads), most of the community is made up of responsible, yet adventurous people – some are transhumanists out for the cognitive boost, some are looking to alleviate their depressive symptoms – and it seems to boast a pretty good rate of anecdotal success. This has resulted in the start of a cautious conversation between professional researchers and the community.
Drawn to the idea, I’ve also built a device. For one, I’ve been having trouble with a low-key manic depressive tendency, and also I was wondering if this could be used to address the frontal lobe inactivity problems inherent to my genetic condition.
While I don’t have a too long history to share, so far it seems I’ve both successfully reduced the amount of compulsive repetitive behaviors, and cut a depressive episode short.
In future posts I’ll be writing in detail about the device design, where it came from, and why I decided on building it like this. I’ll also be addressing the electrode montages I’ve been using, and maybe add some subjective updates of my experiment.
In the meantime, I think the best resources to read for general curiosity are the /r/tDCS FAQ and this SpeakWisdom article about depression treatment.