Self-administration of brain stimulation is a bad idea, researchers say

Researchers are only beginning to understand how brain stimulation works, cautioning that results can vary widely and even they do not fully understand it.
By Stephen Feller  |  July 7, 2016 at 4:59 PM
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PHILADELPHIA, July 7 (UPI) -- Despite the promise of studies stimulating the brain with low-voltage electricity, nearly 40 researchers in the field have banded together to warn about a growing trend of people buying or building devices to stimulate their own brains at home.

Do-it-yourself transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, is not very well understood and people attempting to treat conditions like depression or anxiety, or to improve their cognitive function, may be endangering the proper function of their brains, researchers say in a letter published in the Annals of Neurology.

Several methods of brain stimulation have been the subject of studies in the last several years to mixed results, in part because researchers are still learning how electricity delivered to the brain affects not only the parts stimulated, but parts of the brain that have not been stimulated.

Among the methods tested are deep brain stimulation, which requires doctors to drill a small hole in the skull and insert an electrode into the brain, and was not effective at helping patients with depression, and repetitive transcranial stimulation, which delivers magnetic pulses to the brain, and showed some efficacy for anorexia patients.

Most forms of brain stimulation are expensive and difficult, however tDCS requires a device with electrodes and a headband in order to deliver an electrical current to the brain.

Studies with tDCS have helped patients eat less and increase weight loss, and other studies have shown it can help with depression and anxiety, with others suggesting it can help with creativity, focus and other improvements to basic cognitive function.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School, and neuroscientists from other institutions, express a sense of growing alarm at people buying or making devices -- a Google search turns up several for sale that are affordably priced -- because of the damage they may be doing to themselves.

In the open letter, the 39 researchers outline basic reasons why people may be harming themselves in ways experts in the field cannot be sure about.

In addition to stimulation affecting more than just the targeted brain region, the actions of a patient during tDCS can affect how the treatment alters their brain, such as whether they are reading a book, watching television or staring at a wall.

Research into tDCS is based on treating medical conditions, rather than enhancing healthy brains, changing the relationship of the treatment's risks and benefits, which also vary highly from person to person.

The main concern, the researchers say, is that while they have gained knowledge in tDCS studies, they really are unsure of the full effects of electrically stimulating one's brain -- which is why the treatment remains experimental and unapproved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"It is important for people to understand why outcomes of tDCS can be unpredictable, because we know that in some cases, the benefits that are seen after tDCS in certain mental abilities may come at the expense of others," Dr. Rachel Wurzman, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a press release. "Given the possibility that the improper use of our articles might cause harm, as a community we felt it necessary -- an ethical obligation -- to explain in a peer-reviewed journal why it is that we generally do not encourage do-it-yourself use of tDCS."

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