Dangers of do-it-yourself brain stimulation: an interview with Dr Michael D. Fox

Can you please give a brief overview of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)? What has research shown tDCS could be used for?

tDCS is the administration of week electrical currents through electrodes on the scalp to modulate brain activity.

Research has shown that tDCS can increase or decrease brain excitability when the electrode is placed over the part of the brain that controls movement (motor cortex).

There is some evidence that by placing the electrodes in other locations one can help treat things like anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s, or enhance function in normal people such as memory or concentration.  

Why is do-it-yourself brain stimulation on the rise?

Unlike many forms of brain stimulation, it is possible to do tDCS at home and even build the stimulator yourself.

There are an increasing number of scientific experiments that report positive effects.  People get excited about these effects and may not want to wait for the results of large scale clinical trials or FDA approvals to try and get that benefit.

Is do-it-yourself tDCS dangerous?

We don’t know. There are obvious risks such as skin burns if one uses too much current.  However, our article was focused on the possibility of risks that may not be obvious.

Modulating brain activity with tDCS is something we only partially understand.  Because of this, any experiment done in a research setting is reviewed for safety, approved by an ethics committee, and monitored for adverse effects.

Some of the protocols in the DIY community have never been tested.

What accidental brain alterations can occur from do-it-yourself tDCS?

You can modulate brain areas you’re not intending to modulate. You can affect functions you’re not intending to affect.

Even if you achieve the effect you’re going for, that effect may have trade-offs (i.e. you help one thing but hurt another).

How long-lasting can the effects of tDCS be?

After one session of tDCS, effects can last a couple hours. After repeated sessions (e.g. daily stimulation for many days in a row) effects can last months or longer.

Is there a lot of variation in how different people respond to tDCS?

Yes. This is one of the key points of our article.  Just because an effect was seen in a scientific study averaged across a group of 20 people doesn’t mean you’re likely to see the same effect on yourself.

In fact, people may have the opposite effect.  Even within the same person, tDCS can have different effects on different days.  Were just beginning to understand the sources of this variability.

If readers are interested in tDCS, what are their best options? Should they see a healthcare professional?

Enrolling in a research study is a good option if you live in an area where this type of research is being performed.  Talking to a health care professional is also a good idea.

If I were contemplating manipulating my own brain activity with electricity, I’d want to get as much information as possible first.  

What do you think needs to be done to prevent the dangers of do-it-yourself tDCS?

As scientists, our job is to provide information, including information about what we do and don’t know.  With that information, people can and will make their own decisions.  

Where can readers find more information?

Anna Wexler at MIT studies the DIY brain stimulation community and is an excellent source of information on this topic.  Regarding tDCS itself, there is a wealth of scientific literature available, although most of this is written for other scientists, not lay users.

About Dr Michael D. Fox

Michael Fox, MD, PhD, Director of the Laboratory for Brain Network Imaging and Modulation, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School

Dr. Fox is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Associate Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, Associate Director of the BIDMC Deep Brain Stimulation Program, and Assistant Neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, PhD in systems neuroscience, MD with board certification in Neurology, and specialty training in movement disorders and brain stimulation.

Dr. Fox’s research focuses on developing new treatments for neuropsychiatric disease based on understanding brain networks and the effects of brain stimulation.

He has authored numerous highly cited articles in the fields of brain imaging and brain stimulation and won several awards for his work including the S. Weir Mitchel Award from the American Academy of Neurology, the McCamish Award from the National Parkinson’s Foundation, and recognition as one of the “World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds” by Thompson-Reuters for the past two years.

April Cashin-Garbutt

Written by

April Cashin-Garbutt

April graduated with a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. During her time as Editor-in-Chief, News-Medical (2012-2017), she kickstarted the content production process and helped to grow the website readership to over 60 million visitors per year. Through interviewing global thought leaders in medicine and life sciences, including Nobel laureates, April developed a passion for neuroscience and now works at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, located within UCL.

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