Monday, February 06, 2012

Brain Hacking: Homebuilt tDCS and More

Stuart Gromley sits hunched over a desk in his bedroom, groping along the skin of his forehead, trying to figure out where to glue the electrodes. The wires lead to a Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab, a toy covered with knobs, switches, and meters. Even though he’s working with a kiddie lab, Gromley, a 39-year-old network administrator in San Francisco, can’t afford to make mistakes: he’s about to send the current from a nine-volt battery into his own brain.

Gromley’s homemade contraption is modeled on the devices used in some of the top research centers around the world. Called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the technology works on the principle that even the weak electrical signals generated by a small battery can penetrate the skull and affect hot-button areas on the outer surface of the brain. In the past few years, scholarly research papers have touted tDCS as a non-invasive and safe way to rejigger our thoughts and feelings, and possibly to treat a variety of mental disorders. Most provocatively, researchers at the National Institute of Health have shown that running a small jolt of electricity through the forehead can enhance the verbal abilities of healthy people. That is, tDCS might do more than just alleviate symptoms of disease. It might help make its users a little bit smarter. _Phoenix
Rob Zammarch
...tDCS [is] a way to tease apart the mechanisms of learning and cognition. As the technique is refined, researchers could, with the flick of a switch, amplify or mute activity in many areas of the brain and watch what happens behaviourally. The field is "going to explode very soon and give us all sorts of new information and new questions", says Clark. And as with some other interventions for stimulating brain activity, such as high-powered magnets or surgically implanted electrodes, researchers are attempting to use tDCS to treat neurological conditions, including depression and stroke. But given the simplicity of building tDCS devices, one of the most important questions will be whether it is ethical to tinker with healthy minds — to improve learning and cognition, for example. The effects seen in experimental settings "are big enough that they would definitely have real-world consequences", says Martha Farah, a neuroethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. _Nature
A very dangerous homemade hack for tDCS: Don't try this at home!
Ingredients:
One (1) brain, inside skull
One (1) 9-volt battery
Two (2) wires
Two (2) damp sponges

Instructions:

Attach battery to wires, attach wires to sponges, attach sponges to skull, one over each eyebrow. Simmer once a day until mental health reaches a firm consistency.

It sounds like something you dreamed up in the basement with your stoner friends in high school. (In fact, you may actually have done so.) But transcranial direct current stimulation is the hottest thing to hit the improvisational health management scene since acupuncture. A growing body of evidence suggests that sticking a battery onto your head could hack into your brain's operating system and make life generally more worth living. Think of it as Norton Utilities for the mind.

That's not an oversimplification of the process. tDCS is literally that simple. The total cost of a treatment is less than $5 of parts from Radio Shack and a sponge. No prescription needed. No needles, no pills, no insurance companies, no weird hormonal fluctuations, no commercials saying "I'm glad [drug of choice] has a low risk of sexual side effects!"

An analysis of the pros and cons of tDCS yields fairly impressive results.

PROS
Improved hand-eye coordination
Better memory
Less depression
Recover from brain damage
Less senility
Me talks nice like teacher
Better memory
Control seizures
Cure migraines
Become superior human, crush puny unenhanced inferiors, survive apocalyptic "rise of the machines"
Better memory

CONS
Could end up looking stupid
Small, but not entirely absent, chance of permanent brain damage _longecity
It would be smarter to use more sophisticated devices, following more practised protocols. People will need to proceed with caution, and share insights and mistakes, so that mind hackers can move ahead safely toward their goals.
Researchers at the University of Oxford and University College London studied people with normal math skills using a noninvasive technique called transcranial direct-current stimulation, in which scalp electrodes emit current that modulates neural activity. The team focused on the right parietal cortex because it contributes to spatial and math­ematical thinking. This brain region shows abnormal re­sponses in children with developmental dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects math skills.

Over the span of six days the inves­tigators applied current over the volunteers’ right parietal lobe for 20 minutes at the beginning of training sessions in which subjects learned to associate numbers with arbitrary symbols, such as triangles or cylinders. After practicing, subjects were rapidly presented with pairs of symbols of different visual sizes (using larger or smal­ler fonts), and they had to choose the physically larger one as quickly as they could. In some of the pairs, the physically larger item rep­resented a smaller magnitude—for in­stance, a huge symbol meaning “two” was paired with a tiny symbol representing “five”—­and that mismatch could cause a delay in reaction time because subjects must override their impulse to choose the greater number.

By the fourth day subjects who had their right parietal cortex stimulated became slower for mismatched trials as compared with matched trials, just as adults are when they respond to real digits. But participants who did not receive the same pattern of stimulation showed no difference between these trials, suggesting they had not internalized the symbols’ meaning. The results indicate that right-hemisphere stimulation helps people learn numerical symbols.

The superior performance lasted for six months—a long effect that suggests the method may someday benefit those with developmental dyscalculia, says study co-author Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist at Oxford. _SciAm
Different locations for the electrodes should yield different results from tDCS. The science -- and the hacking -- has barely begun.
[Michael] Weisend, who is working on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme to accelerate learning, has been using this form of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers. From the electrodes, a 2-milliamp current will run through the part of my brain associated with object recognition - an important skill when visually combing a scene for assailants.

The mild electrical shock is meant to depolarise the neuronal membranes in the region, making the cells more excitable and responsive to inputs. Like many other neuroscientists working with tDCS, Weisend thinks this accelerates formation of new neural pathways during the time that someone practises a skill. The method he is using on me boosted the speed with which wannabe snipers could detect a threat by a factor of 2.3 (Experimental Brain Research, vol 213, p 9).

Mysteriously, however, these long-term changes also seem to be preceded by a feeling that emerges as soon as the current is switched on and is markedly similar to the flow state. "The number one thing I hear people say after tDCS is that time passed unduly fast," says Weisend. Their movements also seem to become more automatic; they report calm, focused concentration - and their performance improves immediately.

It's not yet clear why some forms of tDCS should bring about the flow state. After all, if tDCS were solely about writing new memories, it would be hard to explain the improvement that manifests itself as soon as the current begins to flow. _NewScientist
Neuroscientists and cognitive scientists are plodding along in the dark, far more than they will admit. The establishment would like to be able to control potentially transformative and disruptive technologies such as tDCS, and other possibly effective brain boosters. But that is not likely.

1 comment:

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