Contributor Q&A: Cara Santa Maria gets her brain stimulated

This week on "TechKnow," contributor Cara Santa Maria explores a brain stimulation technique called transcranial direct current stimulation.  She met with leading scientists and researchers at the Burke Research Institute and City College of New York to learn more about the therapeutic potential for this new technology. Of course, we had to have her experience it firsthand. 

After undergoing a tDCS session, Santa Maria talked about her experience.

So, how did it feel?

It was warm and tingly, I really could feel the electricity on my skin. But in my brain? I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. The worst part for me was that the electrodes were soaked in saline solution, so they got my hair wet and messed up my 'do!

Were you skeptical of the technology when you first heard about it?  

I was very skeptical. Not only was I unaware of the breadth of clinical research currently underway, I'd heard through the grapevine about the growing movement of "brain hackers"--individuals using do-it-yourself rigs for neural stimulation.

I was also unconvinced (at first) due to the seeming lack of specificity in tDCS. I wondered how such a low level of current being passed across large areas of the brain could have such wide-sweeping effects on everything from depression to memory to motor control, and many more applications. The whole endeavor smelled of snake oil.

But when I interviewed Dr. Marom Bikson, something he said struck me. He asked how I would feel if someone offered me a new wonder treatment called "drug." "Drug" cures stomach aches and allergies, infections and diabetes. "Drug" can do it all. Of course I'd be skeptical of "drug." But drugs don't work that way. They are highly specific based on their structure. Dr. Bikson says that tDCS too, is specific, based on which brain region it affects and how it's paired with a behavioral protocol.

In short, brain stimulation is useless unless your brain is actively engaged during the process. This is why it can have so many different applications.

"I personally wouldn't want to do anything to my brain before there was scientific consensus about its safety and effectiveness."

You met a couple that’s part of the DIY brain hacker community –   does it surprise you that people would want to do this at home?

I'm not surprised that people want to try tDCS at home, but I am concerned. tDCS is not yet a well-defined treatment protocol. Anybody receiving tDCS under a physician's care is doing so as a participant in a research study. That alone is not without risks.

But at-home "brain hackers" are taking a dangerous gamble when they set out to change their brain activity via electrical stimulation. The lasting effects aren't fully tested. The voltage might not be well calibrated. The participant's tolerance may be different from that of the general population. I personally wouldn't want to do anything to my brain before there was scientific consensus about its safety and effectiveness.

tDCS has so many promising applications – what excites you the most?

I'm personally most excited about the promise tDCS seems to hold for individuals with Major Depressive Disorder. Although the paradigm may be more complicated (what exactly is a behavioral treatment for depression?), if it has even a minor effect, it could help millions of people.

I have dealt with depression since I was a child. I see a therapist weekly and take a daily dose of citalopram, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. I'm lucky that I've found a drug that works for me. Many people are not. They struggle to find an appropriate dose or maintain a drug after its effects change with time. If this proves to be a reliable alternative treatment, it could be a real game-changer.

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