Experimenting with electricity

Meet a couple who are testing out tDCS with their own homemade device

Editor’s note: For our story on transcranial direct current stimulation, a non invasive treatment that uses electrical currents to stimulate the brain, TechKnow wanted to include the perspective of tDCS users outside the clinical setting. Jeff Vier and Erica Muxlow are a couple living in the Bay Area. TechKnow connected with them on the tDCS reddit forum, a popular resource for the DIY brain stimulation community.

The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow” contributor Cara Santa Maria.

TechKnow: What made you want to start using tDCS?

Erica: I had been having difficulty focusing, just trying to relax enough to do my job...I’m a software developer, systems administrator, a lot of things that take concentrated time in front of a computer...I was finding that certain problems were very frustrating for me. I felt that ever since my motorcycle crash.

TechKnow: A motorcycle crash, can you tell us what happened?

Erica: Two years ago, I was riding down the front straight of a race track on my motorcycle. I ended up getting pushed by the wind, so I grabbed the brakes, flipped over, and landed head first at about 120 MPH. At the time I didn’t realize I even hit my head, it was a pretty good crash.

TechKnow: How did you realize you had a head injury after your motorcycle accident?

Erica: I started seeing a neurologist...and the doctors would have me do things like count backwards, one hundred minus seven, subtracting seven each time. And when we were doing those simple tests, I started panicking. I used to be great at math. It was just such a huge shock to my confidence.

TechKnow: So then how did you first hear about transcranial direct current stimulation?

Erica: From Jeff.

Jeff: I listen to Radiolab podcasts a lot, and a recent one was all about tDCS from a military training standpoint, and then they hinted at people trying it. So I thought, well, if other people are trying it, I could probably find enough information to mock something up for Erica...I got home, did enough research and established it’s very doable without a lot of specialized equipment.

Erica: Okay, he has more specialized stuff than the average person [laughs].

TechKnow: Do you come from a DIY maker subculture?

Jeff: I’ve been doing a lot of electronic projects, I made a couple tube amplifiers for headphones in the last few months. We’re always working on car projects that have all sorts of electrical gremlins because we’re using junkyard parts. So yeah, I’m electrically oriented.

TechKnow: Did you buy the parts at RadioShack?

Jeff: No, RadioShack doesn’t have half of what you need.

TechKnow: Oh, so that’s just conventional wisdom.

Jeff: Right, there are a few pieces from RadioShack, but they don’t have varistors and they don’t have good capacitors. Everything here is very low wattage, so if you need anything over a quarter watt their selection is almost nothing.

TechKnow: Were you nervous about getting involved in brain hacking in a DIY kind of way?

Jeff: Not at all, it seemed pretty straightforward. The currents we are talking about are so low, low milliamps, nothing consequential that it didn’t seem risky. If I was running mains through her head, then it would be something scary. It’s a 9-volt battery, it’s not going to do significant damage.

TechKnow: So after Jeff built the device, did he put it on his head first or was he like, I’m going to try it out on you?

Erica: I think I got to be first, I like to be first.

TechKnow: Do you like being first? Do you think there’s something in your personality that wants to be experimental by nature?

Erica: My boss would definitely say yes, it’s difficult for me to be that self observant, but my boss would say everything is experimental with me.

Jeff: But a lot of this is making sure you have all the data, that you’re making good decisions, that you’re in control, it’s still a risk calculation. So she’s definitely not throwing herself out there and seeing what will happen.

Erica: I’m very interested in efficiency, personal efficiency, any kind of optimization...I have a number of applications that help me just monitor my own behavior. On my computer,  I have a little script tracking what I’m doing, how much time I’m spending on that task, if I’m opening applications that I shouldn’t be.

TechKnow: Did you have that before the accident?

Erica: No, that was developed because I wasn’t focused as much as I think I could be.

TechKnow: How do you plan on measuring your progress with the tDCS headset?

Erica: So I’m using a brain training game called Dual N-Back. So far I’ve tracked my progress with the game without using the tDCS, and I plan to use tDCS, and then practice the game and see how far I can get.

TechKnow: Are you going to record this information? Do you plan on making it available to other people?

Erica: I plan to track the amount of time I’m spending using tDCS and how well I’m performing in the game to see what is correlated.

TechKnow: tDCS is currently in clinical trials across the country, and some people are really optimistic, but there are some that are nervous that there isn’t enough research yet. What do you say to that?

Jeff: Depending on the FDA to be the authority on what is safe and what is not, well, the FDA has done a lot of good, the FDA has also let a lot of crap onto the market. There are plenty of things that aren’t unsafe, they just aren’t as helpful as we hope, and that seems to be the worst case for tDCS from the research that we’ve seen. Maybe we’re wrong and there’s some lurking “this will make you go blind in 30 years,” but I doubt that.

Erica: Just watching all the pharmaceutical commercials with the fine print and all the talking at the end of the commercial, we accept a lot of risk for some set of benefits, and this is something that I’m willing to take on.  

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