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Do-It-Yourself Brain Stimulation Could Result In Altered Brain Functions

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The transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a "do-it-yourself" type of brain stimulation people use for cognitive enhancement and in the treatment of anxiety or depression. A recent study shows that these devices could do more harm than good.

Despite its popularity and promise, a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Harvard Medical School teaching hospital) as well as several experts in the neuroscience research community, has issued a warning about the home use of tDCS and the risks that come with it.

The tDCS uses of low-voltage electricity for stimulating the brain using a headband and a device with electrodes. Past studies showed that tDCS helped patients increase weight loss, eat less and even improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Other studies suggested it can even help people become more focused, creative and have an increased basic cognitive function.

Experts are worried about its growing popularity, especially since affordably priced versions are available online. In their Open Letter, the 39 researchers laid out reasons for thinking these devices could be harming the people who wished to use them to become better.

The patient's actions while using tDCS, such as watching TV or reading a book, have impacts on how the treatment changes the brain. Past research on tDCS was based on the treatment of medical conditions, which means they were analyzing an unhealthy brain and not enhancing a healthy one.

The researchers' main concern is that despite the knowledge gained in past tDCSs studies, the scientific and medical communities are still unsure of the treatment's full effect on the human brain. That is why, this particular brain stimulation technique is considered experimental and remains unapproved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"It is important for people to understand why outcomes of tDCS can be unpredictable, because we know that in some cases, the benefits that are seen after tDCS in certain mental abilities may come at the expense of others," said Rachel Wurzman, a University of Pennsylvania's postdoctoral research fellow.

People who use tDCS at home as a "do-it-yourself" medical device should be aware that the scientific and medical communities do not fully understand how an electrical stimulation is capable of bringing about the anticipated results or how the treatment affects the surrounding brain areas.

"[B]ut we do know that the brain changes they bring about may be long-lasting, for better or worse," warned the researchers.

The open letter was released in the Annals of Neurology journal on July 7.

Photo: Dierk Schaefer | Flickr

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