Brain-O-Matic

By PAGAN KENNEDY  |  February 7, 2007

So Gromley returns to his experiment. Flash, flash, flash. He rearranges the electrodes several times before he finds the sweet spot.

“Do you remember the first time you drank coffee? It was like, ‘Oh my god, if I’d known how good this was, I’d be drinking coffee all the time.’ ”

Needless to say, the researchers I talked with cautioned against trying this sort of thing at home, although they had a grudging respect for anyone with the pluck to do it. “In the past, a lot of scientific discoveries were made by amateurs who experimented on themselves,” notes Peter Bulow, a psychiatrist at Columbia University. He says that a recent safety study found that tDCS causes no damage to brain tissue, but cautioned that any cutting-edge treatment comes with unknown risks. Bulow himself has just submitted a proposal to study the effects of tDCS on 20 depressed patients, and teams of researchers are experimenting with battery-powered electrodes at the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Harvard Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, and at the University of Göttingen in Germany, among other centers. They’re exploring tDCS as a treatment for depression, chronic pain, addiction to cigarettes, and Parkinson’s disease, as well as motor disorders caused by stroke and neurodegenerative diseases.

Some believe that if tDCS continues to pan out, a consumer version of the machine might someday appear on the market — available with a prescription from a doctor. Asked whether the tDCS machine might look like an iPod if it ever hit the market, one NIH researcher smiles. “The brain-pod!” he jokes. “It should play music, receive calls, and . . . shoot like a gun.” Then he grows serious. “It could be very simple and wearable.”

Yet its very simplicity could be its undoing. The cost of parts — electrodes, a battery, a resistor — can be had for as low as $10. How would a medical-supplies company make money off of a gizmo so rudimentary that it sounds like a seventh-grade science-fair project?

I, Science Experiment
It is October 2006, and a group of researchers are gathered around a conference table at the Harvard Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Felipe Fregni, an instructor in Neurology at Harvard Medical School, is delivering an introductory lecture on what might be called Brain Zapping 101. His hair slicked to the side in the manner of a 1920s tycoon, Fregni is wielding a remote control, flashing images onto a white board. About 25 scientists — from Thailand, Brazil, Bolivia, Israel, and Germany, among other countries — crowd the room. The graphs Fregni projects on the wall create a frisson of excitement. The audience ooh and aahs. They lift digital cameras and snap photos. You can feel it — the buzz this technology is beginning to generate among the clique of researchers enchanted by both brains and gadgets.

At the end of his lecture, Fregni announces that he will demonstrate tDCS. Does anyone in the audience want to try it out? Silence. The scientists gaze around, waiting for someone else to volunteer. And then the room erupts into laughter at the collective reluctance to be wired up.

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