Let’s face it: the notion of applying electricity to the brain gets a bad rap. There are two popular images of this scenario seared into our collective imagination: the Frankenstein monster coming to life with a jolt of electricity and, more recently, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest who is forced into electroshock therapy. Let’s just say he lost his joie de vivre.
That’s why when I told people, "I’m working on a story about a form of therapy that involves placing electrodes on the head," I got a range of reactions — from looks of disbelief to downright aghast faces.
The therapy is called transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS and it actually only involves about 1/400th of the amount of current applied in electroshock therapy. The amount is so small that some people don’t discern anything while others have described a slight tingling, itching or burning. In other words, no convulsing, foaming at the mouth or involuntary twitching of the body.
There is a lot of buzz about it lately in neuroscience circles with a growing number of studies using TDCS to treat a range of illnesses from schizophrenia, depression, to forms of brain damage caused by strokes.
TDCS works by placing a positive electrode and a negative electrode to specific parts of the brain. When the TDCS device is turned on, the current makes its way through the scalp, affecting the brain region beneath. The current is too small to actually make the neurons fire but, depending on the type of stimulation, it’s just enough to either enhance or diminish their natural ability to fire.
The therapeutic applications of TDCS are currently being tested in clinical trials around the world. Some of the most promising studies involve depression, including one in Brazil, which is comparing the effects of Zoloft against TDCS. Researchers hope that TDCS as an “electroceutical” might be an alternative to pharmaceuticals which often have side effects. Or TDCS might be simply used on patients whose depression can’t be treated by medications.
But it’s not just those with serious mood disorders or mental illnesses who might benefit from TDCS. (Here’s the part in the conversation in which those who pooh-pooh the idea of zapping the brain usually sit up and take notice.) There are studies looking at how TDCS could help you lose weight. Yup, apparently if you dial up the neuronal activity in the brain associated with rational decision making, you might not reach for that bag of potato chips. (If you’re interested in enrolling in the FDA clinical trial, click here).
And who among us doesn’t want to be a little bit more alert but a little less caffeinated? The military apparently would like sleep-deprived soldiers to maintain their vigilance without trigger-happy jitters. That’s why they’ve funded studies which compare the effects of TDCS versus caffeine. Apparently, TDCS did a better job.
There could even be a way to use TDCS to foster creativity. An University of Pennsylvania researcher is testing to see how using TDCS to turn down neuronal activity in the frontal lobes of the brain might help us when we have to, proverbially, “think outside the box”.
All these exciting possibilities may make you want to run out and buy a TDCS device.
But scientists caution that these are still early days and nothing so far has been approved by the FDA for treating medical conditions. Nevertheless, there’s a whole subculture of people who have been inspired to build their own devices. I myself turned down a chance to try TDCS in a clinical setting while filming this segment, but I can totally understand the allure of a technology which has the potential to address not only many of our contemporary ills but our desires to be a bit better than we are.