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Can a jolt from a nine-volt battery make you smarter? Happier? Medical researchers revive a discarded technology and set the stage for the ‘brain pod’
By PAGAN KENNEDY  |  February 7, 2007


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.

Say “electricity” and “brain” in the same sentence, and most of us flash on certain scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. But tDCS has little in common with shock therapy. The amount of current that a nine-volt battery can produce is tiny, and most of it gets blocked by the skull anyway; what little current does go into brain tissue tends to stay close to the electrodes. By placing these electrodes on the forehead or the side of the head, researchers can pinpoint specific regions of the brain that they’d like to amp up or damp down.

Gromley is one among a small clique of hobbyists who have been discussing the tDCS machine on the Web. Like ham-radio operators of the brain, they share advice with their fellow tinkerers. “I accidentally found a way to make GREY FLASHES IN MY VISION using a 9v battery. Don’t you try it,” says one hacker in an on-line forum. “Here’s how not to do it,” he adds, and then provides instructions.

Gromley has been suffering from bouts of depression since he was a teenager; antidepressant medication has only made him feel worse. Now he finds himself sitting before a Radio Shack kit, with sponge electrodes he bought on e-Bay affixed to his head — one on the temple area and one on the brow. When he flips on a switch, current runs from the battery through a resistor and then into wires and into his prefrontal cortex. He leans back in his chair with his eyes closed, wondering if he feels anything. That’s when he sees the flash — what he describes as a “horizontal lightning bolt” — that seems to arc from one side of his forehead to the other.

“No, that didn’t happen,” he thinks, and tries to calm himself. Then, a few minutes later, he shifts in his seat, the wires jiggling, and he sees lightning again. Gromley yanks off the electrodes and begins searching on Google, using keywords like “tDCS” and “flash” until he finds a study that reassures him: those spots of light were harmless.

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.”

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Looks like ETC to me. My ex husband an architect had ETC for depression and he is not an architect any more. Two weeks later he could not draw, Five years later he could not accomplish calculus. He had been an A student. Now he is home with a mental health disability. Watch what you do. Nutrition has some answers for health problems.
By sheryl on 09/15/2007 at 3:27:21

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