Sending a mild shock to the brain may help resolve speech problems. It may also offer an innovative way to improve learning and performance levels.
A recent study revealed that people who stutter perform significantly better on a speech test if they are zapped with a treatment called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).
Researchers concluded that mild shocks to the brains of people who stutter, combined with a brief course of speech therapy, produced better results than speech therapy alone.
The tDCS process involves sending a tiny current through specific regions of the brain to make neurons more likely to fire.
Brain stimulation was used by at least five athletes who competed in the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil. The athletes relied on a headset called the Halo Sport, made by San Francisco-based Halo Neuroscience.
Company officials say that the process can stimulate the motor cortex and offers users “gains in strength, explosiveness, endurance, and muscle memory” when used during training.
Military trying out the technology
Olympians aren’t the only ones looking for a high-energy way to boost their abilities.
Ashton Carter, defense secretary under President Barack Obama, told Defense News in 2016 that special operations teams would try the Halo Sport to see if it could improve military skills training.
The device is part of the military’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental program, intended to improve the armed forces with innovative technologies.
Brain stimulation has even been tested as a way to help soldiers find snipers more rapidly in virtual reality (VR) training programs.
The hope is that tDCS will be a safer alternative than prescription drugs, such as modafinil and ritalin. Both are used as performance-enhancing drugs in the armed forces.
May help students ace exams
The tDCS process could also be used to stimulate the area associated with attention control for improved focus.
It may also be helpful for sharpening memory by giving a jolt to the brain area responsible for short-term memory.
Both high school and college students are trying tDCS in increasing numbers. Some of them report substantial improvements in memory and focus with tDCS.
There is some doubt
However, according to Australian neuroscientist Jared Horvath, one session of tDCS may not improve mental performance in healthy individuals.
He concludes that “tDCS was not found to generate a significant effect. Taken together, the evidence does not support the assertion that a single-session of tDCS has a reliable effect on cognitive tasks in healthy adult populations.”
Dr. Michael Rosenbloom, department chair of neurology and clinical director at HealthPartners Center for Memory and Aging in Minnesota, told Healthline that “There is no proven role of tDCS in healthy individuals without a specific medical issue. Although evidence suggests that there might be a potential role in conditions such as depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, or even treating pain.”
Uses and risks
Marom Bikson, a biomedical engineer at The City College of New York who uses computer modeling and rat brains to study how tDCS works, told Science Magazine that although many researchers accept that the tiny amount of electricity used won’t necessarily make neurons fire, he thinks tDCS may benefit performance by increasing the chance that they’ll fire or establish new connections.
The tDCS process is something that can be jury-rigged at home as it doesn’t require any expensive gear.
All a person needs is some simple circuits, electrodes, and a 9-volt battery. The instructions to make tDCS devices are easily found on Reddit and other online forums. There are also consumer kits available.
However, tDCS machines haven’t undergone the testing process any drug or medical device must undergo for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Buy one, and you have nothing more than the manufacturer’s claim that it will work as advertised.
Build one, and you’re gambling that you won’t do something dangerously wrong. Many experts warn against using these devices without medical supervision.
According to Rosenbloom, “Setting or timing the treatment incorrectly may make it ineffective. There are also risks like stimulating the wrong brain structure or tDCS possibly causing seizures.”
He also says, “I would exercise caution about tDCS without the assistance of a medical professional. This treatment is not FDA approved. There are many variables (dosage, duration of stimulation, and electrode placement) that need to be considered when using this treatment therapeutically. You would need to be very aware of the area of the brain being stimulated, the timing of the shock, and the device’s settings.”