Lucid’s Guide to Neurostim: Pt. 2, Meet Your Fairy Godmother
If MGMT’s “Electric Feel” has been stuck in your head since Pt. 1 and led you here, you’re already halfway in your journey to understanding how tDCS and neurostimulation work, and if they are truly effective. Maybe you’ve read about our progress in Pakistan and even watched some of our testimonials, but even then, all of this “unlocking your true potential” probably seems like pseudoscience. How can a machine make me happier, more athletic, and learn faster? Well… it can’t and it won’t. There’s a common misconception because of current marketing employed for tDCS that makes it out to be this mythical fairy, meant to fly in and tap you on the head 3 times, say a few magical words, and bang, you’re lifting cars and reading minds like Dr. X.
Neurostimulation is not magic.
But it is pretty magical.
Where bad marketing and real research diverge is what tDCS literally can and can’t do. Like some of the most common mind altering drugs used by our peers in higher education and in the Valley (starts with + and ends with all), the results that come from your altered mind state are solely dependent on you. Neurostimulation operates on the same principle; it primes your brain to create the perfect biological environment for you to deliver maximal output at whatever task.
Now here’s where the “magic” comes in, unlike drugs which have messy side effects and a transient influence on your brain, tDCS has no proven side effects, and a lasting effect on your brain. Meaning that stimulating your brain for creativity, and then using your brain at that elevated level of creativity, results in a permanent above-baseline level of creative focus after every use.
That’s the concept neurologists and brain geeks so fondly refer to as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is how flexible and “sticky” our brain is in holding onto new skills. A majority of our neuroplastic abilities degenerate as we get older; the older your brain, the less able to enhance and learn new skills. Using tDCS eliminates this idea of “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Biological priming and neuroplastic changes alone are phenomenal feats achieved by tDCS. If you want to become more creative, if you want to become more focused, tDCS will make it happen, and over time it’ll make it permanent.
Understanding what tDCS can and can’t do makes the science behind it all the more amazing, especially because the proven possibilities are larger than the impossibilities. Our very first device, like most tDCS companies, was a perfboard with a few resistors, a digital potentiometer, a battery wired haphazardly, attached to two dish sponges strapped to our heads via a Nike headband. Could we have accidentally electrocuted ourselves and ended our lives? Yes, very possibly, but that was the price of scientific discovery and it was that thrill of discovery that allowed us to reach the medical grade quality we have today.
tDCS devices essentially send some specified amount of current through one electrode, the anode, to stimulate the region of the brain the electrode is placed over. The other electrode acts as the cathode to “close the circuit” with the human brain as an intermediate component. It’s a lot like those lightbulb circuits you tinkered with in the fifth grade, only this time, your brain is the light bulb. The stimulation to the desired area of the brain translates to an increase in blood flow to that area. This is what may be responsible for initiating much of the release of various neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, etc) that biochemically prime our brain for certain actions and behaviors. In addition to the neurotransmitter release is the electrical interaction of neurons and the formation of synapses that occurs more readily with electrical stimulation. Creating new synapses is analogous to creating more bridges between the region of your brain responsible for something like creativity and a skill you want to learn.
So how well does this actually work and how can you tell?
Well, the age-old adage “no pain, no gain” seems to apply here. Pain, although subjective, is very quantifiable, and is a measure that doctors and scientists use when rating certain treatments and their effectiveness. A study published in Brain, a journal of neurology, conducted at the Hospital of Neurological Rehab in Barcelona by Harvard Medical School, showed how effective tDCS is at treating neuropathic pain in spinal cord injuries. The results were astonishing.
The study above compared four groups of patients; tDCS and VI (visual illusion), tDCS only, VI only, and placebo. Visual illusion is a method in which a mirror is placed in front of the patient and part of the mirror is replaced with a screen that plays video of a working body part where the patient would expect to see the reflection of their own injured body part. This technique was used in complement to tDCS to see their combined effects. Over 50% of patients using tDCS experienced a >30% reduction in pain. tDCS not only is a means of treatment itself but significantly enhances the effects of other treatments.
Pain is very easy to understand and its treatments are easy to categorize in effectiveness. However there is an area of medicine, as large and financially involved as pain management, which is much harder to understand and treat: mental health. Mental health problems are often very abstract in nature because of the empathy barrier between doctor and patient, but are a very real obstacle in enjoying desired quality of life. Our current healthcare system and the world of medicine is heavily reliant on highly symptomatic and addictive antidepressants and stimulants. Where does tDCS come into the mix? As the name “mental” illness implies, mental health issues all originate from the brain, and tDCS can reconfigure brain chemistry and the connections between the centers responsible for depression, anxiety, and many others.
A recent pilot study published by researchers from Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Harvard, showed that “four out of five subjects under real stimulation had a benefit from tDCS, with mean reduction in the depression scores between 60 and 70%”. If you’re a skeptic, as you should be, researchers conducted the study as double blind with sham stimulation (no stimulation) to test and see if placebo could be the reason for these drastic changes. Placebo often is able to dramatically change the mental states of individuals and induce antidepressant like effects in the brain. However, in the case of tDCS, placebo has no significant influence as sham tDCS could not come close to recreating the antidepressant effect of active tDCS.
In fact, tDCS not only beat out any possible placebo effects, but causes larger improvements in Beck Depression Inventory scores than fluoxetine, a drug used to treat major depression, in the short term and through a 6 week period.
So maybe now you’re convinced it works. But is it safe? A review published by the NIH cross referenced all patient trials testing the effectivity of tDCS in various settings and of all ~3000 patients that have gone through stimulation, the worst side effect was “a slight tingling sensation under the electrodes”.
Now, after getting insight into studies published by some of the top institutions in the world and even researchers at a U.S government medical institution, you’re wondering why something still doesn’t seem right. Cultural conditioning. To you, tDCS is still paramount to attaching two jumper cables from a car battery to your noggin. Sending electricity through your body is a Frankenstein-like, mad scientist home experiment that will leave you with hair like Albert Einstein. But let the science simmer. Understand that studies done with people actually do work and are very safe.
But maybe you do believe all of this. Why does it apply to you? You might not have chronic pain, and you might not suffer from mental illness. What you do have however, is desire to achieve an increased amount of creative focus. Sometimes your ability to change the world with a blog post is hindered by writer’s block. Or maybe the young Coco Chanel inside of you hasn’t had the premonition of fashion genius that you so deeply desire. Maybe your job requires a level of performance that you want to exceed. What can you do with tDCS?
If you’re patient, it’s possible that there exists a company creating a device to assist you in reaching your full potential in less time. It’s possible that you could be one of the first to join a movement to increase your creative focus through neurostimulation.
We believe that creativity births greatness. We’re working on bringing this innovative neurostimulation technology to the consumer market through augmenting creative focus. Sign up for our limited beta.