A novel therapy that improves mental performance in healthy people is being called “jumper cables for your brain.” The scientific name for the therapy is transcranial direct-current stimulation, tDCS for short.
A similar yet very different treatment, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly called electroshock therapy, doesn’t have a positive image in most peoples’ minds. Popular culture including movies and TV has convinced most of us that it’s used to treat crazy people, usually with extremely undesirable outcomes, and that the people giving the treatment are either mad scientists or evil government agents.
ECT does have a place in modern neuroscience, however. It is often the last resort therapy for patients with intractable depression and other conditions that do not respond to drug treatments.
tDCS uses very low voltage and very little current to achieve its effect, less than 1% of the enegy used in ECT. The tDCS devices being studied today use a 9 volt battery for power. tDCS researchers have been using currents in the range of 300 to 500 microamps. In contrast, ECT uses much more current, about 2000 times as much. According to an article in Wikipedia, “Typically, the electrical stimulus used in ECT is about 800 milliamps…”
Researchers have identified a myriad of benefits for the novel therapy. From the article in The New York Times:
Scientific papers published in leading peer-reviewed journals since 2005 have shown that tDCS can improve the speed or accuracy with which people perform [a computerized] attention-switching task. Other 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.
“tDCS will not make you superhuman, but it may allow you to work at your maximum capacity,” said Felipe Fregni, the Brazilian physician and neurophysiologist who runs Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “It helps you achieve your personal best level of functioning. Let’s say you didn’t sleep well the night before. Or perhaps you’re depressed, or you suffered a stroke. It helps your brain reach its peak performance.”
No one is really sure why the therapy works although there are theories. The brain is essentially a very complex electrochemical computer. Applying a weak electrical field to neurons while performing a task seems to make the neurons fire easier and to remember the task for some time. Unfortunately, researchers have not yet identified the specific mechanism that is responsible for the improvements. As a result, research funding has been sparse because peer reviewers for funding agencies in the U.S. government remain skeptical.
A number of companies are pursuing commercialization of tDCS technology and are engaged with the U.S. FDA on the regulatory approval process. ECT devices are categorized as Class III or pre-market approval (PMA). It remains to be seen if the new, lower power devices also fall into the PMA category. A less restrictive FDA classification would mean a greater market potential and benefits to ordinary healthy people who are looking for a little mental advantage. I would definitely consider trying one of these devices in exchange for a few of those mental benefits!
Takeaways: There are many processes and body functions that are not fully understood or characterized. When researchers continue to investigate these promising areas despite a lack of funding, it might mean that there is an opportunity for collaboration and eventual commercialization.
Of course, something like tDCS, “brain enhancement technology” comes with risks. What might be the long term effect of the therapy on the brain? What about effects on children and adolescents?
Finally, it will be imperative to separate the new technology from the stigma of electroconvulsive therapy in order to appeal to healthy consumers.