Should You Be Using Brain Stimulation?

Credit: Courtesy Thync

The idea that we can zap the brain with electricity to solve health problems — from mild insomnia to multiple personality disorders — has been around for over 100 years. We first tried it on animals, then, in 1801, two Italian physicists' experiments on a handful of patients with severe depression. Many experts have since made use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is still commonly used by professionals. More recently, we've seen brain hackers use the technique, literally hooking their heads up to 9-volt batteries. And now a company is looking to take this practice to the mainstream with a consumer device you can use on your own.

Thync's device is simple: A small triangular piece of conductive tape adheres to the forehead and sends low-level electrical currents to the brain. The technique is called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, and it has never before seen approved use outside of a lab — or even in the hands of a therapist.

"I worry a little bit," says Peter Turkeltaub, a tDCS researcher and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Georgetown University. "These have always been research-based devices. When it's given to consumers to do what they please, presumably people are going to do other things; use it every day, and use it for hours on end." Turkeltaub has been studying the effects of tDCS to the brain for a decade, and is confident that the technique can provide real health benefits, although in a controlled setting.  

Thync's device is programmed to send between two to five milliamps of currents to the brain for roughly 60 minutes every day (Thync CEO Isy Goldwasser notes that using the product continuously would be logistically difficult — you would have to keep recharging it). Users control power levels through an app for two settings, the so-called "calm vibes" and "energy vibes," which differ in electrode placement and current rhythm.

Turkeltaub says that no tDCS study — and there are dozens — has shown a significant adverse event. Furthermore, the electrical currents used in tDCS are extremely low. There are no shocks here — the most you'll feel is a tingle when the device is at full tilt on your head. But does it work?

In a study led by Turkeltaub, a group of healthy adults were given a reading test and then a round of tDCS stimulation. The group took a second exam, and adults who initially scored below average showed increased reading scores immediately after wiring up — but exactly why brain-zapping made these adults smarter is still a big unknown. The idea is that these low-level currents slowly change the way brain cells signal one another so they're more or less excited, to improve how you think. For now, the science of how it works is inexact.

"We don't have a full understanding of relationships like where you put the electrodes and what the relationship should be, or how much current and how long," says Turkeltaub.

Thync's device is available for sale on their site for $300, plus the cost of strips to attach the electrodes. The gadget is considered a lifestyle device and is exempt from FDA approval.