My tDCS Story: A Six Month Retrospective
My Experiments with Neuroplasticity
If you’re new to my story, I started using tDCS in February 2014. From an early age, I was diagnosed with atrophy of my optic nerve, similar to that seen in very advanced stages of glaucoma, and as a result, I have been legally blind since birth. After a few days of using tDCS, I noticed that my eyesight started to improve. At that point, I began putting a great deal of time and effort into figuring out what was going on.
A Problem with MSG
What lead me to try tDCS had nothing to do with my eyesight. Since I was young, I had been plagued by migraine headaches. Some years ago, I observed that I’d always get migraines about six hours after eating at a particular restaurant near my house. This restaurant served the Vietnamese noodle soup, known as Pho, and was known for being cheap and good (about $0.50 per bowl). The cook would dump a big scoop of MSG (Monosodium glutamate) in before serving it, so I made the connection, and tried to avoid eating there or any place that used MSG. This is much easier said than done, as almost all Vietnamese food is eaten with soy sauce or fish sauce, both of which are not MSG, but do contain highly concentrated glutamate, so this would still trigger my migraines. The strange thing is that sometimes I’d eat MSG with other foods, like garlic or broccoli,, and I would not get as bad of a headache as normal, so it seemed like there was more going on than just MSG.
During this time, I found that Excedrin Migraine was my only real defence when I started to get a headache, so I would keep some with me at all times, taking it after a meal that I felt contained a lot of MSG. Even with this as a precaution, I would end up with 3–4 headaches a week, and each one would feel absolutely miserable. On these days, I could barely open my eyes on account of the pain, and I would often need to vomit due to intense nausea.
My Glutamate Hypothesis
Back in 2006, I had tried searching for glutamate research or cures, but at that time there wasn’t much information on-line. So I went on with 3–4 headaches per week for almost eight years. At the end of 2013, I had gone through an especially tough time in my life and I had become very depressed and even developed stomach ulcers, which was made worse by taking too much Excedrin. My headaches had been getting worse, and it seemed like the Excedrin was no longer effective. So in January 2014, I decided to try to get on top of my glutamate problem and get off Excedrin.
One Friday afternoon, I sat down and started to read anything I could find on-line about glutamate. I quickly learned that glutamate was the primary excitatory neurotransmitter, and that it is essential for our brain to function. The problem occurs when there is too much glutamate in the brain, which causes a condition known as excitotoxicity, where brain cells that are exposed to too much glutamate fire so rapidly that they die and must be removed and replaced. I also discovered that glutamate can be converted to GABA, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, and that it can also be broken down and used as energy, through interaction with another substance called oxaloacetate. I thought that if too much glutamate was causing the problem, then taking things to reduce glutamate in my system might help to eliviate the problem. I found a shop on-line that sells oxaloacetate supplements, and ordered some. I had also found a published study that showed when oxaloacetate and pyruvate are combined with lipoamide (also known as alpha lipoic acid) and was administered to rats, it reduced blood glutamate levels by more than 80%, which caused an afflux of glutamate from the brain across the blood brain barrier. (for a thorough and practical review of glutamate and excitotoxicity, see this article)
Armed with this new understanding, I developed and started to test my Glutamate Hypothesis. I would eat foods that I knew to contain high amounts of glutamate, and then I would take a combination of oxaloacetate, pyruvate, and alpha lipoic acid. The result, I found that I did not get a migraine! I’ve repeated this successfully many times, and so have been able to throw out all of my Excedrin Migraine (sorry Novartis). In addition to preventing migraines, oxaloacetate supplementation also promotes general health and brain function, as it is an essential intermediary in the Kreb’s cycle, helping cells to produce energy.
Sources of Inspiration
It took me about four weeks to thoroughly research, test, and refine my Glutamate Hypothesis, and I was inspired by a book called “The Brain That Changed Itself”. A friend sent me a video interview of the author, and since it was intriguing, I downloaded the audiobook from Audible.com and read it. In this book, the author discusses a technology called TMS or Transcranial Megnetic Stimulation. This was the second time I’d read about this method, the first being in another brain book I had picked up, called “On Being Certain”. I was curious, and since my glutamate problem was solved from a bit of internet research, I decided to start learning about this technology. I quickly found an article about both TMS and tDCS in Nature. I was intrigued by the cognitive enhancement aspect of tDCS, and quickly found a consumer device available on-line. I placed an order, and within a week, I had the device in my hands.
My First tDCS Session
I was very cautious at first, as this was still a very new field. The first dday I tried the device, I set it for 1mA (the abbreviation for miliamps) and tried it for only 1 minute. Afterwards, I definitely felt different, but since I didn’t want to overdo it, I waited until the next day before trying it again. The second day I tried 1.5mA and 5 minutes. By day 3, I was up to 2mA and 20 minutes. I definitely felt different, more awake and alert.
I was born in the US, but have lived for the past eight years in Asia. So at that time, I was in the US visiting my family, and I had always suffered greatly from jetlag. I thought this was just par for the course, until I met a guy who traveled extensively, but didn’t suffer at all from jetlag. This time, upon returning to Asia, I found that using tDCS in the mornings greatly reduced the effects of jetlag, and I started having a normal sleep schedule almost immediately. I also felt like I had more energy when going to the gym.
During my US trip, I had also picked up a number of nutritional supplements that I came across while learning about glutamate. In addition to oxaloacetate and alpha lipoic acid, I had begun taking Coenzyme Q10, forskolin, artichoke extract, ginkgo biloba, vinpocitine, fish oil, taurine, and 5-HTP. I’d also take valerian root and glycine before bed to help with sleep. I believe the combination of tDCS, supplements, and exercise are much more effective when combined in this way.
tDCS and Visual Plasticity
As I mentioned, after first starting tDCS, I noticed that my eyesight had improved. I had been diagnosed with atrophy to my optic nerve at an early age, and to date there have not been any therapies to help regenerate a damaged optic nerve.
I had my first OCT scan (which uses Near-Infrared light to take a high-resolution image of the back of the eye) in March of this year, to try to quantify the thickness of my Retinal Nerve Fiber Layer. These nerves carry the visual signals from the eye to the visual cortex. I had read a study where subjects used an iPad app to train the visual cortex to be more accurate. This simple training had resulted in significant improvement to those individual’s visual perception. I had read a second study that showed increased contrast perception in volunteers after tDCS to the visual cortex. So, I thought that combining these two treatments might be a good way to improve my own visual perception.
There was also a published study on a therapy using rtACS (repetative transcranial alternating current stimulation, a different type of stimulation than DC) offered at a university in Germany for patients with glaucoma. This treatment, while different from tDCS, had helped many patients recover some functional eyesight (see this video). And since I couldn’t afford to fly to Germany to try this treatment, I’d give tDCS a try.
After six month of tDCS focused on my optic nerve and visual cortex combined with visual training, I have had marked improvements to my visual perception, especially in contrast perception and perceiving objects from afar. For example, if I am walking on the sidewalk, and another person is walking in the opposite direction towards me, I would not have been able to notice the other person until they were about 1 meter away. Now, I will notice people from 3 meters away. I can’t see them clearly enough to identify them, but at least I can move out of their way, if they’re in a hurry. Likewise, I can see oncoming traffic from 2–3 times farther away than before, which is very helpful when crossing busy streets. Another example is when I use my computer. I use a large Apple 30” display, and before starting tDCS, I would sit with the monitor about 3 inches from my eyes. As you can imagine, this was not at all comfortable, but I had to do this in order to see the screen clearly. After the first few days of using tDCS, I was able to push my monitor back and sit 6 inches away from it. Within two weeks, I was sitting about 12 inches away. Now, I sit 18 inches away. This is the first time in my life I’ve used a computer at this distance. Similarly, I’m able to use my iPhone at much greater distances than before (6 inches now, compared to 2 inches previously).
In Pursuit of Neurogenesis
After learning much more about how the brain works, I’m still optimistic that there will be a treatment to improve my condition, and those who similarly suffer from eye diseases like glaucoma, macular degeneration, and retinitis pigmentosa. Some eye diseases, like myopia and cataracts, have already been eleviated through technology (i.e. lenses and surgical procedures). Today, we usually don’t think of these technologies as innovative or groundbreaking because they’ve been around for so long, but at the time they were first introduced, they were fraught with controversy, and had many critics. As Mark Twain famously said, “I’m all for progress, it’s change that I object to.”
Technology is advanced through the scientific method, and I am confident that evidence-based research will win the day. Personally, tDCS has already made a tremendous impact on my life, not only in terms of improved visual function, but also enhanced physical and cognitive abilities, resulting in higher productivity and life satisfaction. I find that I am much more in tune with my body and brain, which maybe due to the combination of tDCS and mindfulness meditation, but most days I wake up in the early morning and feel great. tDCS is a truly disruptive technology that has the potential to change the world for the better.
On Becoming a Modern Monk
Sometime ago, I began to use the handle “TheModernMonk” on the tDCS Subreddit. I felt this was an appropriate name because even before learning about tDCS, I had begun exploring meditation through the lens of neuroscience. I do shave my head, and I do practice regular meditation, but I am not celibate. My grandmother is a devout Buddhist, and she always wanted our family to eat vegetarian just one day a week. It was always very difficult for me to do this, and on these days I would literally feel weak at the end of the day because I hadn’t eaten any meat. Even having a single lunch or dinner without meat was difficult for me. But in October 2013, I started to experiment with being vegetarian, partly because I wanted to see if it would make a difference on the glutamate front, and partly because I’d been reading biographies of Steve Jobs and Gandhi, who both experimented a lot with their diets. I took it one day at a time, and was vegetarian for two months straight. I then tried eating meat on and off, but eventually I went back to being full vegetarian. I still love dairy and eggs, so don’t see myself going vegan anytime soon, but for me (and for the environment) not eating meat is a pretty big step.
Since becoming vegetarian, I will sometimes feel like I’m missing something in my diet, but I have found that supplementing taurine helps to satisfy these cravings. So my guess is that for some there maybe a physiological basis for the desire to eat meat, specifically, a genetic or conditioned dependence on taurine for normal brain function, and lack of sufficient endocranial structures to support this without external supplementation. This is similar to caffeine addiction, where the brain becomes conditioned to operate with caffeine and a regular coffee or tea drinker will experience cognitive difficulties or headaches when they miss their daily dose.
To me, meditation is less about religion, and more about being mindful and aware of one’s self and the world. A very practical resource on the background and practice of meditation is a book called “Mindfullness, Bliss, and Beyond” by Ajahn Brahm. Also, the website getsomeheadspace.com is another great resource for getting started with daily meditation. The website’s creator, Andy Puddicombe, also has a great talk on TED.
Share Your Story!
If you have a tDCS story to share, either good or bad, please submit it to this Collection. The tDCS Subreddit contains many great stories, but due to the nature of Reddit, these often get lost to new readers, and one of the most often asked questions is, “What’s your experience?” So I hope that this will serve as a useful resource for newcomers to tDCS, in addition to the Subreddit.
Please note that I am not recommending tDCS as a treatment, and would strongly encourage you to do your own research before embarking on any particular course of action.
As always, I hope this has been helpful. ☺