A few weeks ago, whilst unplugging my hair dryer, I got electrocuted. It wasn’t a big shock, but for a split second it did hurt.
To me, electricity has always been something with many positive uses (including drying my hair) but also something with the power to cause harm.
So I was taken aback when I first heard about transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). As the name implies, tDCS involves directly applying current to your skull, via electrodes placed on your head.
Simply speaking, it’s electrocuting the brain.
“tDCS can be used for a lot of things,” says Dr. Brent Williams, a tDCS enthusiast and retired director of the Kennesaw State University iTeach Centre in Georgia, USA.
“To enhance memory, to enhance creativity, to improve the ability to understand speech or even vision.”
A recent study revealed that tDCS enhanced the mental capabilities of US military personnel in particularly demanding roles.
Dr. Williams has worked with students using tDCS to improve their knowledge retention, corporate executives hoping to memorise government regulations and writers looking to improve their creativity – in much the same way as some people use "smart drugs" like Ritalin.
More importantly (to me, at least), tDCS can also be used to treat depression. Having been diagnosed with various mental health conditions, this is what really sparked (sorry) my interest.
tDCS is not without its detractors. It's potentially dangerous for younger people, whose brains are still developing.
It also remains unregulated, which worries some experts.
I was surprised to learn that tDCS can be self-administered at home and you can order your own tDCS kit online for as little as £59.99.
People have even started making their own kits.
Nick Davis from Swansea University has warned that, "These are the people who are probably going to do it at a higher dosage than a scientist or clinician would give to a patient and are less aware of the potential risks."
Those risks include burns to the scalp and mood swings.
Thanks to graphic depictions of electro-convulsive therapy in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I found the idea of people electrocuting their brains in their living rooms somewhat unnerving.
But Dr. Williams reassured me and said the “tDCS current is so low.”
He called it “nudging the brain in a particular direction. You keep nudging it and nudging it and eventually, over time, you get the desired effect.”
I decided to order a kit for myself.
After reading the handbook several times over and getting my best friend on Facetime for precaution, I got ready for my first tDCS treatment.
I donned the rather unflattering cap that is used to place the electrodes to the precise points of the brain you are trying to affect, and pressed the button.
I started to feel a tingling sensation where the electrodes were placed on my head.
The tingling intensified a bit, but it wasn’t painful. I have four tattoos and this wasn’t anywhere near the tolerable pain I experienced when getting any of them.
I sat down on my bed, allowing the electrodes to do their work, whilst I continued to chat to my friend until the recommended first time 10-minute treatment was up. When I removed the device, I noticed my skin had turned pink where the electrodes had been placed.
I’ve tried it twice now, but I can’t say that I’ve experienced any emotional changes so far.
Dr. Williams had told me, “For depression patients it’s typical to have them use tDCS for at least 30 days, 5 days a week, to get their brain moving in the right direction.” So maybe I just need to give it some more time.
The brain is made up of different parts, which are all involved in different body functions. For example, the occipital lobe is associated with visual processing.
The idea behind tDCS is that by using different electrodes (a positive one and a negative one), we can either excite or inhibit certain areas of the brain. This, in theory, has an impact on the functions those brain areas control.
Dr. Danny JJ Wang, a professor at the department of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been researching tDCS.
“In the case of a depression patient,” Dr. Wang told me, “we’re trying to make it easier for them to experience joy and harder for them to experience the negative feelings of depression.
“The general thinking, is that the left prefrontal cortex is the good part and the right prefrontal is the bad part, getting you stressed etc.”
So, as Dr. Williams said, “The left prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain we’re trying to stimulate.”
Dr. Wang developed an MRI method to view tDCS currents in living humans, so he could see what the current was actually doing in the brain.
He concluded that, for now, “Nobody really knows how it works. There’s no direct evidence.”
Dr. Williams warned that, "If you put the electrodes on backwards, you can actually make a person more depressed."
However, he remains convinced. He spoke about a woman he knows who went from suicidal to “as normal as anybody” after 30 days of tDCS treatment.
I contacted a few people using tDCS to cure their depression via social media. Mario, 32 from Mexico, told me it was working for him.
“I think it is great. You can see a lot of improvements in your mood. The more you use it the better you feel.”
Another user, eagee, wrote, "I suffered from depression for almost 25 years, and after I started applying tDCS I've had two years so far without it."
If tDCS really can be so life changing for depression patients, why isn’t it more widely available?
According to Dr. Williams, "the equipment is so simple that it cannot be patented in the US. And if no one can own the rights to tDCS, no one can make a profit on it."
That’s why, according to its supporters, tCDS is being ignored by major drug companies.
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But, as Dr. Williams put it, “The cat is out of the bag.”
There is a community of tDCS ‘do-it-yourselfers’, who self-administer.
Both Dr. Wang and Dr. Williams want more research to help tDCS become better understood.
Personally, I hope it’s as good as it sounds.
Illustrations by Sophie Standing