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Zapping Their Brains at Home

EARLIER this month, in the journal Annals of Neurology, four neuroscientists published an open letter to practitioners of do-it-yourself brain stimulation. These are people who stimulate their own brains with low levels of electricity, largely for purposes like improved memory or learning ability. The letter, which was signed by 39 other researchers, outlined what is known and unknown about the safety of such noninvasive brain stimulation, and asked users to give careful consideration to the risks. For the last three years, I have been studying D.I.Y. brain stimulators. Their conflict with neuroscientists offers a fascinating case study of what happens when experimental tools normally kept behind the closed doors of academia — in this case, transcranial direct current stimulation — are appropriated for use outside them. 

Neuroscientists began experimenting in earnest with transcranial direct current stimulation about 15 years ago. In such stimulation, electric current is administered at levels that are hundreds of times less than those used in electroconvulsive
therapy. To date, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies of the technique have been published. Studies have suggested, among other things, that the stimulation may be beneficial for treating problems like depression and chronic pain as well as enhancing cognition and learning in healthy individuals.

The device scientists use for stimulation is essentially a nine-volt battery attached to two wires that are connected to electrodes placed at various spots on the head. A crude version can be constructed with just a bit of electrical know-how. Consequently, as reports of the effects of the technique began to appear in scientific journals and in newspapers, people began to build their own devices at home. By late 2011 and early 2012, diagrams, schematics and videos began to appear online. Today, 

tinkering skills are no longer needed, as there are approximately a dozen direct-to-consumer devices available for purchase by the public. A majority of people who use the technique at home hope to improve their learning or memory, but a significant proportion are self-treating depression, anxiety or A.D.H.D.
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