Friday, February 10, 2012

Brain stimulation

We are making advances in non-invasive electronic brain stimulation that continue to amaze me.  It is nothing like what happened to Jack Nicholson's character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The one I want to talk about today has some unique issues involved that really peak my interest and warrant some deep thoughts.  Good blogging all around.

The advance is called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS).  Sounds scary, but it is really not.  Basically you hook up some really low power electrodes (1 milli-amp) to the surface of your head as close as possible to the area of your brain you want to stimulate and turn them on for about 20 minutes.  The idea is to prime the neurons really close to activation, so that just a little real brain activity, even a small amount that would normally fly under the radar, becomes enough to fire the neurons.  By keeping the electrodes on for 20 minutes (as opposed to the seconds that they normally are active), your brain is primed to release certain neurotransmitters for months.  So essentially, whatever area is stimulated is primed and ready for action for months.  Depending on where you locate the electrodes, this can increase your capacity for sensorimotor skills, vision, mathematical ability, language ability, working memory capacity, creativity, and perhaps others.  No physical side effects have been found yet (yet being the key word). 

The less ethically questionable application of this is to treat cognitive deficiencies.  When someone has a deficiency, for some reason no one seems to mind trying to “fix” them.  But if we do this to healthy people to give them “super powers,”  we instinctively feel that this is unfair.  It just allows the rich to get richer. 

But TDCS may be different.  It is cheap, portable, and there are instructions on the Internet where you can buy some components at Radio Shack and build one yourself.  So discrimination is not as big a deal.

Except that most amateurs doing it themselves would probably do it wrong.  They could apply the electrodes to the wrong area.  They could apply it for the wrong amount of time.  They could use it on children and cause uneven cognitive development (we have no idea what this would do).  They could apply it to memory or attention and increase their learning of a bunch of crap they hear on talk radio.  The FDA won’t approve it, but they don’t have to if you can make one yourself. 

This brings up two major questions.  Should you go out and make one and use it on yourself?  How clear and easy would the instructions have to be for you to take the risk?  Second, are there ethical concerns that we need to address?  And if so, what do we do about it?  Ban TDCS until more research is in?  What kind of penalty would you suggest?  These are tough calls.  I would be very tempted to self-experiment if I thought I could do it right.  But I guess I would have to accept any unexpected negative consequences if I experienced any.  Buyer Beware never meant so much.