What a couple of days. First the New Yorker, now PBS tv! If you’re new to tDCS I’d caution you to note that Marom Bikson, one of the leading tDCS researchers in the world, is quoted below as saying ‘perhaps’, as in perhaps it improves brain function. Also, in the section where Andy McKinley is able to dramatically increase reporter Miles O’Brien’s performance of a vigilance task, ask yourself if you really have a need to improve your ‘Where’s Waldo’ score. Unfortunately, the piece doesn’t go into the use of tDCS as a tool to fight depression, which in my opinion, has come closest so far to a verifiable effect borne out by much clinical research. My point is simply that it’s early. We don’t have our tDCS ‘killer app’ yet. Stay tuned!
MILES O’BRIEN: But step aside, grande latte. There’s a new kid on the block.
MAROM BIKSON: So, current is going to come out of the device to the electrodes on your forehead and it’s going to flow through your head.
MILES O’BRIEN: Biomedical engineer Marom Bikson at the City College of New York is prepping me for a dose of transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, a jump-start for my brain.
MAROM BIKSON: It can make the brain perhaps function information more effectively and therefore make you, let’s say, better at things. Or it can make the brain more likely to undergo plasticity, more malleable, more able to learn.
MILES O’BRIEN: A human brain has 100 billion nerve cells or neurons. Neurons are networkers. They make multiple connections with each other via synapses. We have about 100 trillion of them. All of this runs on electricity that we generate ourselves.
MAROM BIKSON: Now, this was the montage that we tried on you.
MILES O’BRIEN: It turns out each of our neurons is a microscopic battery with a-tenth of a volt of electricity. When we’re using them to remember things or do math or write this story, they fire electrical spikes.
MAROM BIKSON: When we’re adding electricity to the brain with TDCS, instead of a tenth of a volt, we’re producing a 1,000th-of-a-volt change, so it’s not enough to trigger a spike. It’s not enough to generate a spike, but it’s enough to modulate the spikes, to maybe get more spikes or to get less spikes.
Meanwhile, the military is going straight to the brain in search of wakefulness: It is researching a process called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which more or less zaps the brain with electricity, in the hope that it will keep soldiers constantly at the ready. Andy McKinley, an in-house researcher for the U.S. Air Force, helped publish a study on the phenomenon. “When we kept people up for 30 hours, we found that tDCS improved their vigilance performance twice as much as caffeine, and the effect lasted twice as long. Caffeine lasted two hours, tDCS lasted about six.” For the sleep-unhappy public, unregulated and unapproved tDCS-applying devices have already found their way onto civilian markets.
My sense is that the author’s experience is very similar to that of most tDCS DIYers – an initial flurry of interest followed by frustration at not knowing if ‘it’s working’. That’s why it’s exciting to see easily replicated protocols for self-testing emerging around the Dual N-Back game that is available for free. http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/download.html
We’d decided to try the “accelerated learning” montage that had been developed and tested by DARPA. The best test of the device we could come up with was to play Nintendo Wii Mario Kart while brain zapping for 20 minutes — our performance seemed easily measurable (we would just play the same course, over and over) and a lot less violent. At first I was miserable, my green dinosaur avatar, Yoshi, falling off the track on every hairpin turn and barely finishing the course in 3:30. By the end, though, I was cracking 3:00. Of course, there was no control here, no way to tell whether I was simply learning a new skill, but I was cautiously optimistic.
In the weeks that followed, I stuck to it, undertaking 20 minutes of tDCS four to five days a week. I decided to try to teach myself interactive web design, and whenever I’d run the current through my brain, I’d accompany it with 20 minutes on Code Academy, the teach-yourself-to-code megasite. But after a few weeks, the results I was looking for seemed elusive. I was obviously getting better at coding, but there was no way for me to know what role the electricity was playing. And it was still kind of painful. So I quit, and about two months after visiting Bikson’s lab, my tDCS device is gathering dust on a shelf in my office.