Nonfiction

Overclock Your Brain

31 October 2013

Do you wish you could prod your brain with a small amount of electricity to extract that top-notch Marx quote, which fleetingly held a conscious place in your mind but has, while having a rousing conversation about class struggle, plummeted into oblivion? Do you wish you could stimulate your brain into recalling exactly how labile cells work again? What if I told you there was a way to pump your neurons with electricity to increase your focus?

Well, modern science has blessed us (or afflicted us, as the case may be) with exactly that.

Foc.us, the product at hand here, is a headset targeted primarily at gamers who wish to, in computer terms, ‘overclock’ their brains. The product’s website boasts “Overclock your head! Make your synapses fire faster.

Faster Processor, Faster Graphics, Faster Brain!” Although Foc.us is available to buy and has been given the go ahead by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), it has not yet been granted FDA approval and may even be dangerous. Long-term negative effects from its use have not yet been ruled out.

The device uses a method of neurostimulation—the electronic activation of neurons to alter the nervous system—called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Basically, this involves a constant zapping of the brain by small electrodes in order, it is claimed, to achieve increased cognitive performance.

Reading up on the product, though, I discovered something intriguing. The Foc.us headset, as well as other tDCS technologies, can have therapeutic effects for people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, strokes, and other neural ailments. I decided to contact some experts from the neuroscience field in order to really grasp the potential of tDCS and hopefully resolve the question stuck in my head– is electrifying the brain crazy or genius?

I was able to get a hold of Professor of Psychiatry, Paul Fitzgerald, from the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre and asked him a few questions concerning this technology with my regular, unenhanced through the power of tDCS, brain. His also unenhanced, albeit top-notch and learned, brain responded accordingly.

In regards to the studies conducted on tDCS products, he said, “there has been a fair bit of research, including a variety of studies that we have conducted here, evaluating the potential effectiveness of tDCS as a treatment for a number of disorders”. Fitzgerald noted however, “most of those studies have been relatively short term, and the only significant collection of studies has actually been in depression rather than some of the other conditions…. A lot of the studies are either single session studies or relatively short term.”

What about cognitive performance? “There have also been studies in healthy control subjects suggesting you can temporarily improve cognitive performance,” he said, but they too are “small studies showing temporary rather than longer term changes.”

“There really is no long-term safety evaluation of this particular device or devices like it,” he said. “The setup of the electrodes in the device are different than what is being used in the clinical trials previously conducted, so it’s difficult to know how the clinical data collected in other indications applies to the use of the Foc.us. The electrodes are smaller and they are multiple which is quite different to what has been done in other circumstances where tDCS has been used.” Variations like this, Fitzgerald pointed out, raise “questions about how well you can extend the findings from these other studies to the Foc.us device, but, more critically, there’s just no long-term data to indicate what the long-term effect, either beneficial or damaging, potentially might be.”

On the potential of there being a wider market for tDCS products once long-term studies have been completed, and the technology has been refined, Fitzgerald said, “I think there’s considerable potential for this type of technology to be used in the treatment of various disorders.” He did, however, raise concerns about the “outstanding issue” for nontherapeutic use of the technology, which is that “we do not really know what their potential is in enhancing brain function in healthy subjects like the Foc.us devices are being sold for. There has been a lot of hype around whether people are going to be able to potentially enhance their cognitive function with these sorts of technologies,” he said, “but that may not be the case. The human brain has considerable propensity to self-regulate and if you try to drive the healthy brain with this sort of technology, you may end up not getting the same sorts of benefits that you actually see in patient groups.” Having said all that, he concluded, “I think it is way too early to say too much. Selling these things at this time is, I think, and many people in the field would think, way too premature, and not really something that we can guarantee is going to be safe.”

So there we have it–tDCS: prodigious potential, yet potentially dangerous. It is certainly not something I will be trying soon. However, there is nobody stopping you from firing up your own synapses.

Try at your own risk.


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