Headsets, implants and other ways of improving the brain

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Now we understand a bit more about the brain. We know it operates on both electrical and on chemical signals. We know that there are some 86 billion neurons inside our heads and that these basic components of the brain are essentially specialized cells that transmit information.

How the information is transmitted from neuron to neuron across the as many as 10,000 synapses or gaps surrounding each neuron varies dramatically based on external factors – things like drugs that cross the blood brain barrier and interact with the system.

There’s been a recent boom in examining ways in which electrical current applied to the brain can impact both our mental and physical states. Things kicked off in 2000 when German neurophysiologists, Michael Nitsche and Walter Paulus published a scientific paper reporting improvements in motor tasks among their subjects. From this first report the phenomenon called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or tDCS, has been the subject of 1,000 academic papers, and lead to the creation of multiple companies selling headsets to the general public.

In fact, the FDA has approved both transcranial Magnentic Stimulation (TMS) as a treatment for depression, and the implantation of devices inside the brains of people with epilepsy.

Dr. Daniel Chao, a Stanford physician, developed such a device and founded several companies, including Halo, which sells tDCS headsets focused on improving athletic performance. Customers include Olympic athletes and NFL players like Demario Davis, a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns.

Other researchers are exploring the potential for tDCS to be used to help people with impaired mental capacity, and issues like addiction.

Demario Davis of the Cleveland Browns (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Dr. Vincent Clark is a professor and Director of the Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center at the University of New Mexico. His 2012 study demonstrated a significant improvement in subjects’ ability to learn to detect hidden objects. “When we first got the results they were so huge, and we got them really quickly, and I didn’t believe it really, I wasn’t sure, it just seemed like it was too good to be true. Having replicated it a number of times I know it’s probably real. You can use two milliamps of current to double learning rate. My ultimate goal is to help people that have brain or mental illness, and help reduce their symptoms and help them lead more happier and more productive lives.”

There is a bit of a boom in tDCS at the moment. In addition to Halo, which targets athletic performance, there is a company called Focus that sells headsets with the goal of improving cognitive abilities. Another company called Ybrain is utiltizing tDCS to treat depression. And NYU did a study exploring the use of tDCS to help MS patients overcome fatigue and mental fog. And of course there’s a growing DIY community exploring tDCS  and an active Subreddit on the subject.  Indeed, tDCS is having its moment.

But not everyone is cheering the recent growth in tDCS. In May of 2016 a few researchers published an open letter to people thinking about going the DIY route with tDCS, including some specific concerns and a general comment – “there is much about noninvasive brain stimulation in general, and tDCS in particular, that remains unknown.”

While we’ve clearly made some real progress since the brain drilling days, there’s a ways to go. Dr. Clark is pursuing the use of fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging – which basically allows for a real-time recording of brain activity – to learn more about how tDCS does what it does, and continue to improve our ability to both help people, and enhance the human experience.

(Photo: Rubin Williams wears Halo Sport; courtesy Halo Sport)