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…
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."
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."
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."
Wurzman R, Hamilton RH, Pascual-Leone A, Fox MD. An open letter concerning
do-it-yourself users of transcranial direct current stimulation. Ann Neurol. 2016