Tuesday October 13, 2015

Electrical brain stimulation moves from lab to home, experts wary

Brain stimulation, a promising medical technology, is not not ready for consumers, according to neuroscientist Flavio Frohlich. He says there's just not enough information on long term effects.

Brain stimulation, a promising medical technology, is not not ready for consumers, according to neuroscientist Flavio Frohlich. He says there's just not enough information on long term effects. (Allan Ajifo, Flickr cc)

Listen 24:12

Zapping your brain to adjust your mood may sound like the stuff of science fiction, or a campy B movie.

But Anna Wexler is a real life grad student at the Massachussets Institute of Technology, demonstrating a real, commercially available device she bought for less than $300. This product is called Thync. 

Anna Wexler - Brain Simulation Quote

As novel as an electrical brain stimulation device may seem, it's one of a few that are available to the public... though not yet in Canada, in the case of the Thync.

The product, what scientists call "transcranial direct current stimulation", is meant to alter mood. Similar products are being marketed on the promise to improve your cognition, and even make the wearer smarter. And as they become available for home use, experts are still struggling with what to think of this new, wearable tech trend. 

Marom Bikson is a professor of biomedical engineering at The City University of New York. He ran a study, partly funded by Thync, to test how well it works. 

We did invite the Thync company to speak with us, but no one was available.

For years, there's been research into the medical uses of this type of brain stimulation. It seemed promising for everything from addiction to hallucinations.... not to mention helping people to learn better. But whether the technology is ready to leave the lab and enter the public marketplace... is still an open question. 

Flavio Frohlich is a neuroscientist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, who has studied using brain stimulation for depression, autism and enhancing creativity.

Results from "transdermal neurostimulation devices" seem to vary — even when the same person is using the same device, at different times. That's one of the issues raising questions about whether this new type of technology needs better oversight and regulation.

Peter Reiner is a professor at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. 

What are your thoughts on brain stimulation technology... and its potential? Do you think it's a wrong-headed approach to the brain?

Send us your thoughts in an email. Or find us on Facebook or on Twitter @TheCurrentCBC.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.