Friday July 15, 2016

B.C. neuroethicist warns against DIY brain stimulation devices

UBC neuroethicist Peter B. Reiner.

UBC neuroethicist Peter B. Reiner. (Lynn Jennings)

Listen 6:11

If you're thinking of running electricity through your head, Peter Reiner has some advice for you. "Don't try this at home," the UBC neuroethicist tells As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

Reiner has signed a letter warning amateurs about the risks of what's called do-it-yourself transcranial direct current stimulation.

"Transcranial direct current stimulation, we call it tDCS for short, is a newish technique whereby you take little sponge electrodes, you soak them in a saline and you attach them to a very, very low electrical source and you pass a bit of current through the skull and eventually that makes it to the brain."

Clinicians are studying tDCS as a treatment for depression and epilepsy. But in 2013 Professor Reiner became aware that a DIY community was comparing notes on Reddit and Youtube. Since then, online tutorials have grown in popularity. 

Reddit tDCS

A screen capture from the tDCS discussion on Reddit. (Reddit)

"It sounds very weird that people would stick electrodes on their head and run electricity through it," says Reiner. "But these are earnest people trying to improve themselves. Much of the excitement has come in the enhancement field because people have found at least some suggestion that you can improve cognitive functions like working memory or math ability."

There are risks though. "The most obvious one is that they burn the skin on their scalps." And then there are the less obvious effects: "If you change your brain, you change your brain, and everything you do has a bit of a transient effect and potentially a long term effect."

Reiner has no illusions about his ability to stop tDCS do-it-yourselfers.

"People are likely to continue to do what they are going to do in their own homes. We, as ethicists and as clinicians, want to provide as much information as possible to make it as safe as possible."

For more on this story, take a listen to our full interview.