Experts Warn Against DIY Brain Stimulation

July 14, 2016

A group of neuroscience experts have issued a warning about the dangers of trying "do-it-yourself" transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).

The noninvasive stimulation, which involves placing electrodes on the scalp for various time periods, is being investigated in clinical trials for a variety of neurologic and psychiatric conditions. There have also been reports that it may boost cognitive function.

This has led to people trying it at home using simple tools, including a 9-volt battery and a few electrical wires, and there are several websites where individuals give advice on how to "zap yourself smarter." There are even reports of some parents using DIY brain stimulation on their children to try to boost their academic performance.

As a result, several neurologists have now collaborated on an "open letter" on the subject, which is published as an editorial in the July issue of Annals of Neurology. The letter is signed by four experts in the field and endorsed by 39 others.

High Levels of Unknowns

Coauthor of the letter, Michael D. Fox, MD, PhD, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts, explained to Medscape Medical News that the purpose of the letter was to share information about the high level of unknowns about the technique.

"There is so little that we understand about what happens with transcranial brain stimulation, and we wanted to try and communicate that to the wider community."

Dr Fox suggested that the general public has accessed information about the technique from scientific publications, which tend to emphasize the positive and generate excitement about a new technology, without spelling out the unknowns or potential risks.

"This may have been interpreted as 'you can improve your mental function with a 9-volt battery,' but there is a big disconnect here between the scientific community and those thinking they can do this at home, which we certainly do not advocate," he said.

"The effects reported in scientific papers are usually small after being averaged across many different subjects," Dr Fox said. "Effects in a single subject are highly variable, and in some people it can have an adverse effect on cognitive function."

He noted that tDCS is being explored as an experimental therapy for many brain conditions and that its effects on cognitive function in individuals with healthy brains are also being studied.

"But this is being done in a strictly controlled way with specific positioning of electrodes, currents and timings," he said. "The studies are also subject to lengthy ethical approval to make sure it is safe and strict consent processes with everything explained clearly to those participating. Those using DIY brain stimulation may be using protocols that have never been tested, and they cannot be monitored properly in a home environment."

Dr Fox also suggested that people trying it at home may be using longer or more frequent durations of stimulation than those being tested in trials and may be putting themselves at serious risk for harm. "We have been studying tDCS for 20-minute periods, which have been repeated daily in some trials. But there are reports of people using DIY brain stimulation for hours at a time. We have no idea what this would do."

He made the point that the procedure may have effects on many different brain processes, and these are still unknown.

"Modulating brain functions like this is a complex intervention. It may produce benefits on some aspects of cognitive function and adverse effects on others. All this needs to be studied and measured carefully before we know what the trade-offs are."

"Playing With Fire"

On the reports of parents using DIY brain stimulation on their children to try to boost their performance at school and in exams, he was more blunt. "This is really playing with fire," he said.

"There are even more unknowns about the effects of this intervention on the developing brain, and the risk of creating harm is probably much greater than the chance of getting benefits," he commented. "If you want to improve your child's academic performance, there are better ways of doing it than DIY electrical brain stimulation."

Ann Neurol. 2016;80:1-4. Full text

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