August 15, 2014

Overclocking your brain with tDCS

So I’ve been looking forward to sharing my notes on tDCS, easily the most powerful, even life-changing of any cognitive enhancers I've yet used, but condensing the exponentially increasing trove of data on the subject proved a far more challenging undertaking than expected.

Traditional Cognitive Enhancers
Before reading on, please be advised that I have absolutely no financial stake in tDCS, nor do I have ties to anyone with a stake of any kind in tDCS technology.  Also, bear in mind I'm not a doctor either, so none of the following should be relied upon in making decisions about matters that may affect your personal health.  Please consult with your doctor before using any of the technology or methods described below. 

Now then, with that preamble out of the way, here’s a quick overview of this new and groundbreaking technology:

Novel DIY tDCS Headset
At the most basic, “tDCS” stands for transcranial direct current stimulation. Transcranial simply means that the direct current is passed across a region of your brain between two electrodes (the cathode and anode) to form a circuit within the body.  The constant, low-current delivered directly to the brain is a form of neurostimulation which primes the neurons in the target cortical system to fire faster (increasing their “action potential”).  The particular benefits of a tDCS session are dependent on where the tDCS electrodes are placed on the scalp and/or body (each unique placement of tDCS electrodes is known as a “montage”).

And there’s clearly a lot to be excited about when you consider the sheer breadth and variety of uses for which tDCS is proving useful.  The notes and links you'll find below will connect you to research and studies which demonstrate tDCS's utility when applied to accelerate learning, augment working memory, recover from brain trauma, and even in alleviating treatment resistant depression.

After having personally used transcranial direct current stimulation for going on two years now I can say, without reservation, that transcranial direct current stimulation has been the closest thing to a miracle I've yet tried.  In fact it's dramatically exceeded my expectations, becoming the most effective of all cognitive enhancers in my arsenal.  It's even proven beneficial in other meaningful ways that I never expected it could (which I describe in more detail below).

Transcranial direct current stimulation was originally developed to help patients with brain injuries recover from ischemia and neural insults brought about by strokes and other trauma. However, more recently tests on healthy adults have demonstrated that tDCS can markedly increase cognitive performance on a variety of tasks (again depending on the area of the brain being stimulated), diminish lethargy, and bring about feelings of well-being.

By contrast to many available cognitive enhancers, tDCS stands as one of the most thoroughly tested.  A good number of studies have demonstrated the technology particularly effective in learning language, speeding reaction time, augmenting mathematical ability and problem solving, increasing attention span, and  working memory, among others.  In some of the more interesting studies below you'll read about how tDCS has, in clinical trials, been proven to enhance overall learning speed by a factor of 230%!

Of note, even when the tDCS session is terminated the beneficial effects are proven to continue enhancing the subjects working memory ability to learn new skills. These effects have been proven to continue post-session for not less than 1-2 hours, perhaps even days.

Many experts continue to advise that you not try transcranial direct current stimulation at home, but the genie appears well out of the proverbial bottle on this one, accelerated by mass produced DIY tDCS devices like the Foc.us. And it’s no wonder, given the parade of amazing results that researchers have reported achieving on subjects in the lab. It seems like you can make people better at just about anything if you just put the electrodes in the right place. To name just a few of the findings:

  • Applying the electrodes to the prefrontal cortex can improve learning and increase your working memory. 
  • Stimulation of the parietal cortex can improve numerical reasoning.
  • Applying tDCS to the motor cortex can raise your threshold for pain and even make you more adept with your non-dominant hand. 
  • Position the electrodes above the posterior portion of the left perisylvian area (in right-handed people) and tDCS can facilitate rapid language acquisition. 


And the list goes on and on, from depression, to motor reflexes, to recovery from all sorts of ischemia and neural insults.  Very quickly we’re seeing a surge of interest in tDCS as it continues to outperform other choices in cognitive enhancers both in terms of efficacy and safety.  tDCS technology is increasingly being employed to significantly speed healing and restore functionality in stroke victims, and on the other end of the spectrum was recently deployed by every branch of the United States military to augment working memory and effectively train soldiers (sometimes twice as fast!) in skills that vary from flying fighter jets to firing sniper rifles! 



“The military has been looking at how to improve vigilance for the past 50 or 60 years,” said Andy McKinley, a civilian biomedical engineer who has been studying tDCS at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.“At minimum we get a twofold improvement in how long a person can maintain performance. We’ve never seen that with anything else.”

A few studies claim results that are even more jaw-dropping. In Neuroscience Letters last year, Australian researchers reported applying tDCS to 33 people as they tried to solve the notoriously tricky “nine-dot” logic problem. Not one was able to crack it without stimulation, or with “sham” stimulation (in which electricity is applied only briefly to mimic the feeling of tDCS).  However, among those augmented with tDCS, a shocking 40 percent of that group solved it! 

Among cognitive enhancers tCDS certainly ranks among the least convenient, if not intimidating.  Many fear the sessions will be painful or unpleasant but hold in mind that 1 to 2 milliamperes (1mA - 2mA) is an incredibly low amount of electricity.  Wikipedia states that "A person can feel at least 5mA of direct current".  Among those who have used tDCS, the reported effects have seemed, in many instances, too good to be true.  Many subjects report a tickling or burning sensation from the electrodes, and some say they feel different when the current is flowing, with time seeming to pass quickly. But far from finding it painful, an editor at New Scientist who tried it out during a marksmanship test described tDCS as “the most powerful drug I’ve ever used in my life” and “a near-spiritual experience.”  The editor, Sally Adee, wrote:

“When a nice neuroscientist named Michael Weisend put the electrodes on me, what defined the experience was not feeling smarter or learning faster: The thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut up. …  I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.” 

Oh, and she nailed the target.



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