When Brent Williams got to RadioShack that day in the spring of 2012, he knew exactly what he was looking for: a variable resistor, a current regulator, a circuit board, and a 9-volt battery. The total came to around $20. Williams is tall and balding, with wire-rim glasses that make him look like an engineer, which he is. He directs a center on technology in education at Kennesaw State University and is the kind of guy who spends his free time chatting up people on his ham radio or trying to glimpse a passing comet with his telescope. But this project was different.
When he got home, he took his supplies into his office. He heated up his soldering iron, hoping his wife wouldn’t see what he was up to. He fished a few wires out of his desk and built a simple circuit. Using alligator clips, he connected the circuit to two kitchen sponges soaked in saline and strapped them to his head with a sweatband. He positioned one sponge just above his right eyebrow and the other up high on the left side of his forehead. Then he snapped the battery into place, turned a small dial, and sent an electric current into his brain.
Turn the red knob to adjust the current flowing to your brain. Gregory Miller
It’s been nearly two years since Williams cobbled together his first device, and he has been electrifying his brain two to three times a week ever since. Often he does it for about 25 minutes in the evening while reading on the couch. Sometimes it’s while he’s doing laundry or other chores. It’s become just another part of his routine, like brushing his teeth.
Williams got the idea from a news story about how Air Force researchers were studying whether brain stimulation could cut pilot training time. The military is not alone in thinking that brain zapping may improve mental function. In recent years, the method—technically known as transcranial direct current stimulation—has caught the interest of academic researchers. British neuroscientists have claimed it can make people better at learning math. A team at Harvard has found promise for depression and chronic pain. Others are looking into using it to treat tinnitus and eating disorders and to speed up stroke recovery. Hundreds of papers have been published, and clinical trials are under way.
Though these are still early days for the research—many of the studies are small and the effects modest—it has inspired largely enthusiastic media coverage (“the electric thinking cap that makes you cleverer … and happier!” one British newspaper gushed) and spawned a community of DIY brain zappers.
Williams is one of its leaders. The treatments have made a huge difference in his life, he says. He retains more information from the tedious journal articles he has to read for work, and he feels more creative. On his blog, SpeakWisdom, he posts technically detailed reviews of stimulation devices and cheerfully gives advice to anyone considering trying it for the first time. He’s got lots of company. Asubreddit devoted to the practice has nearly 4,000 subscribers who actively follow the scientific research and share tips on where to place the electrodes on your head if, say, you’re depressed, too impulsive, or just want to amp up your creativity.
Williams is spreading the brain-zapping idea closer to home too. He has built brain stimulators for his wife (he couldn’t keep the secret very long) and several friends and acquaintances. All in all, he has persuaded at least a dozen people to give it a try. One says she’s gone off antidepressants for the first time in 20 years. Another says brain stimulation is helping him get his ADD under control. Several ambitious middle-aged professionals say the devices have boosted their memory and focus.
Entrepreneurs are starting to get in on the action. A company called foc.us has already planted a flag with a commercial brain-stimulation headset released last year. It’s marketed as a gadget for videogamers looking to improve their skills, thus skirting the need for FDA approval. The first batch of 3,000 sold out in just a few months. So did the second.
With easy access to the research, the equipment, and each other, self-experimenters aren’t consulting their doctors or waiting for scientific consensus. They’re zapping first and asking questions as they go.
In October I meet some of Williams’ converts at a barbecue he is hosting with his wife, Madge, at their four-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood of mature trees and well-tended lawns outside Atlanta. The first to arrive are Tom and Susan Tillery, a couple in their midfifties bearing a plate of brownies. While Brent tends the grill and Susan helps Madge in the kitchen, I ask Tom what kind of results he is noticing from the brain stimulation. He compares it to a runner’s high: not euphoria but a sense of wellness and calm. He assures me he’s not just doing it to achieve inner peace, though. “I’m doing it to be better at life,” he says. It’s not like electrotherapy will turn any dumb schmuck into an intellectual superstar, he says, but it puts you closer to the top of whatever game you’ve got.
Susan tried it first. She’d heard about it from Madge, who’d been stimulating her brain to improve her memory. Madge, who likes to memorize scripture, says the stimulation has improved her retention dramatically. Susan admits she was skeptical at first, but she was impressed to find out that researchers at Harvard were looking into it. “I was so intrigued,” Susan tells me. She decided to see what it could do for her. The Tillerys own a busy financial planning firm with offices in four states, and she figured she could use some extra focus.
She started stimulating her brain a few times a week. “I put it on while I’m reading the Bible, so it goes by quickly,” she says. It gave her greater mental clarity. “It just kind of took the fogginess away.”
It’s a rare thing for a scientist to stand up in front of a roomful of his peers and rip apart a study from his own lab. But that’s exactly what Vincent Walsh did in September at a symposium on brain stimulation at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. Walsh is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, and his lab has done some of the studies that first made a splash in the media. One, published in Current Biology in 2010, found that brain stimulation enhanced people’s ability to learn a new number system based on made-up symbols.
Only it didn’t really.
“It doesn’t show what we said it shows; it doesn’t show what people think it shows,” Walsh said before launching into a dissection of his paper’s flaws. They ranged from the technical (guesswork about whether parts of the brain are being excited or inhibited) to the practical (a modest effect with questionable impact on any actual learning outside the lab). When he finished this devastating critique, he tore into two more studies from other high-profile labs. And the problems aren’t limited to these few papers, Walsh said, they’re endemic in this whole subfield of neuroscience.
Another crucial issue is how to rule out placebo effects. Though the current flowing through the brain during stimulation is almost imperceptible (it’s about a thousand times less than what’s used in electroconvulsive therapy), a slight tingling sensation under the electrodes can be a giveaway. Scientists are still grappling with the best way to deal with that.
A previous speaker had shown a slide with a curve illustrating the typical hype cycle for new technology. It starts with a steep rise to the “peak of inflated expectations,” then plunges into the “trough of disillusionment,” before finally reaching a “plateau of productivity.” Researchers at the meeting seemed to agree that brain stimulation was somewhere near the peak, and Walsh said the sooner they turn the corner the better. “It would do the field a service if we took a head dive into that trough of disillusionment and swam around in it for a while,” he said. There was nervous laughter in the audience. The DIY crowd, meanwhile, puts scientists in an awkward position. On one hand, the researchers genuinely believe the technique has potential. Some of them have filed for patents and started companies. For both selfish and scientific reasons, they don’t want the self-experimenters ruining it for everyone by getting hurt or creating an aura of kookiness around the thing.
Still, they’re reluctant to condemn the tinkerers outright. “You have to respect people’s autonomy,” says Roy Hamilton, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Hamilton and his colleagues have even considered making a safety video aimed at the DIY crowd. “We’ve talked at some length about whether that would be a socially responsible thing for clinicians to do.” They still haven’t decided.
Before I leave Atlanta I visit James Fugedy, a physicianwho offers brain stimulation treatment at his small office. Fugedy is 65, with salt-and-pepper hair, a mustache, and glasses that give him a slightly owlish appearance. He electrifies his own brain several times a week and says he appreciates the boost it has given his memory.
Fugedy may be the only doctor in the country who trains people to stimulate their own brains and sends them home with a kit. In a way, he represents a narrow middle ground between the scientific establishment and the DIY community. Patients willing to pony up $2,400 get a four-hour consultation in his office, medical-grade equipment, and follow-ups by Fugedy, usually via Skype.
The day I visit, he has arranged for two of his patients to stop by. Hellen Owens has been coming to Fugedy for nine years, driving an hour and a half from her home in rural Bremen, Georgia. Dressed head to toe in burgundy velour, she rocks slowly back and forth on Fugedy’s examination table as we talk, gently massaging one hand with the other. At 57, she has suffered chronic pain that she attributes to fibromyalgia. Her previous doctor gave her epidural injections that helped for 20 minutes or so before the agony returned. “It was like my bones were going to explode,” she says. Brain stimulation hasn’t cured her, not nearly. But she’s convinced she’d be bedridden without it.
The other patient, Deborah Ellis, says brain stimulation has relieved her chronic pain—doctors also diagnosed her with fibromyalgia—and the depression that came with it. “I no longer spend every day thinking I don’t want to live,” she says.
It’s impossible not to sympathize with them. It’s also impossible to know what’s really going on. Placebo effects can be strong for depression and pain conditions, but Fugedy says it’s not in his patients’ minds. He has treated more than 300 people with overwhelmingly positive results, though he acknowledges that those results are just anecdotal. It’s the research that’s made him a believer.
It was basically the same thing I’d heard from the Williamses and their friends. They all trusted the scientific data, even if the scientists weren’t entirely convinced by it themselves. They felt it worked for them, and they’ve seen it work for their friends. They’re convinced it would work for others if they would only give it a try.
When I’d visited Brent Williams the day before, he told me he’d recently gotten an email from a psychiatrist in Los Angeles who was interested in trying brain stimulation with some of his patients. Williams was fantasizing a bit about the possibility that some Hollywood celebrity might use it and talk to Oprah or do an interview with People magazine and tell the world about it. That, he says, would be awesome.
As he was talking he plucked several sponges from a glass of saline solution he keeps on the kitchen counter. He popped them into his foc.us headset and put it on. He tapped a button at the back of his head and the device buzzed to indicate it was working. I watched his face closely. He didn’t twitch or blink or even stop talking for a second, but the current was flowing through his brain.