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Stimulate Your Brain With Electricity: Do-It-Yourself Crowd Latches Onto Trend

06/14/2013 02:18 EDT | Updated 06/14/2013 02:19 EDT
Roi Cohen Kadosh

Is a little electricity good for the brain?

Certainly, research is emerging to suggest that gentle shocks to the brain positively affect everything from math skills to giving Alzheimer's Disease pause to making people seem more attractive.

Then there is the emerging field of transcranial electrical stimulation, also known as TES.

The National Post tells the tale of Canadian David Siever, who claims to have markedly improved his musical abilities after jolting his brain's auditory cortex with electricity.

“Now I tune everything and I practice my singing over and over and over again, because I’m more sensitive to it,” he told the newspaper.

Siever appears to be the poster-boy for the surging trend of do-it-yourself brain stimulation.

No doctors. No major expenses -- machines come as cheap as $250, with instructions on the interwebs.

No problem?

Well...

If electrifying your brain without professional supervision isn't obviously downright dangerous, the home kits on the market seem "to have been built by undergraduates," notes Christopher Mims in MIT Technological Review.

Mims seemed even less impressed with the production values of the promo for GoFlow, a cheap home TES kit.

Or, as Laval University professor Shirley Fecteau told the National Post, “It’s a nine-volt battery with two electrodes; a kid can do it."

That's not to say professionally administered electricity can't be effective at overclocking the brain.

Researchers at Oxford University recently studied the effects of TES, for example, and saw a promising bump in math skills.

"Recent evidence from normal and clinical adult populations suggests that transcranial electrical stimulation (TES), a portable, painless, inexpensive, and relatively safe neuroenhancement tool, applied in conjunction with cognitive training can enhance cognitive intervention outcomes," lead researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh noted in the study's abstract.

Indeed, on the surface, it would seem the brain might be rather receptive to the occasional volt or two.

Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield's cognitive sciences department notes in the academic journal, The Conversation notes, "The brain is an electrochemical machine, so there’s every reason to think that electrical stimulation should affect its function. The part of the brain the researchers stimulated – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – is known to be involved in complex tasks like learning, decision making and calculation."

Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxord, takes issue with the media's use of words like 'shock' and jolt' when describing the practice.

"In fact, the method uses stimulation that is not at all unpleasant and is often undetectable, she writes in a Storify blog.

Of course, psychiatric conditions have long been treated with electricity. There's the much-maligned 'shock therapy' method, which has been effective in cases of severe depression and psychosis.

Deep-brain stimulation is a much more recent treatment, developed by Dr. Helen Mayberg of Emory University chiefly to battle depression.

Her method zeroes in on the brain region known as area 25, applying gentle electrical currents -- and reportedly finding considerable success in chronically depressed patients.

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