Smart drugs aren't the only way to get a cognitive boost.
Images by the author
The discussion around neuroenhancement, especially the kind you might be able to try at home, has largely centred around brain-boosting chemicals. But smart drugs aren't the only way that more intrepid transhumanists are trying to spur their cognitive function.
On Tuesday night, I went along to meet a few neuroenchancement enthusiasts at London Hackspace, where they introduced me to their homebrew variety of a method of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. This experimental technique applies a small electrical current to your head to try to stimulate certain areas of your brain. It's literally an attempt to jolt your neurons into firing.
I came across Dirk Bruere on a transhumanist subreddit, where he posted about the meeting. He explained in an email that he was trying to get a group together, ultimately to look into "less mainstream stuff like low intensity patterned magnetic fields, cold laser stimulation and the effects of modulated IR and microwaves," but that he'd bring his homemade tDCS kit along that evening.
The equipment was very simple; Bruere said part of the point was to show how cheap and easy it could be. Two wires came out of a black box with an LED and a tempting big red button. On the end of the red wire was an anode, on the end of a blue a cathode. Two small sponge pads fit the copper electrodes, and were soaked in salt water before being applied to the user's head. A Nike sweatband held them in place.
He had once duplicated a "runner's high" and was keen to do again.
Bruere told me he'd "always been into weird stuff" and was interested in tDCS, having found that the nootropic drugs popular in the transhumanist community "give you a little bit of a boost but not much." TDCS, he said, had a similar effect to Modafinil, a narcolepsy medication known for inducing a feeling of alertness. He said he was intrigued by potential applications of tDCS for sports, and had once duplicated a "runner's high"—something he was keen to do again.
Bruere's box contained a 9V battery and a current limiter that meant the maximum you'd get across your head would be two milliamps, the typical amount used in tDCS (and a hell of a lot less than electroconvulsive therapy, which uses about 800). "Even if it shorted through the electrodes, you wouldn't get more than about three," he said, and assured me that he was an electronics engineer by profession. He was accompanied by Andrew Vladimirov, who said he used to be a neuroscientist. The "used to" bothered me a bit.
But a couple other volunteers gave the makeshift headset a go first and seemed fine—if anything, mainly unaffected—so I asked to give it a try. Bruere set up the anode around my left temple (the bit that would be stimulated) and the cathode on my forehead above my right eye (this would be inhibited). When he flicked the switch, I got a phosphene flash, seeing a bright white light in my peripheral vision. My skin beneath the damp sponges tingled.
Having never taken Modafinil, I couldn't judge if Bruere's comparison held. He said he found tDCS improved focus by cutting down on the "noise" in your head when you're trying to concentrate—like song lyrics or whatever else is going on in there as a distraction.
I felt a little more alert after a while, maybe like I'd had a bit of coffee, but I was very skeptical—I'd been cautious going in, and wasn't sure if any change I thought I felt could be related to that nervous energy, or the obvious possibility of a placebo effect. After about 10 minutes the area under the electrode over my right eye felt a bit heavy, almost like the beginning of a headache. Again, I couldn't be sure if that was linked to the current, the tightness of the headband, or nothing at all. I got another phosphene flash when Bruere flicked the switch off.
While there have been many studies into tDCS, usually in relation to treating conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, and stroke-related deficits, though also one that looked at maths performance, there's little consensus on or understanding of what it actually does or what effects it might have. As Greg Miller explained in a recent Wired feature:
"The one or two milliamps of current typically used in tDCS isn't enough to make neurons fire. Instead, it seems to put them in an altered physiological state that makes them more or less likely to fire (depending on how the current flows) and more or less prone to rewire their connections with one another.
How that would cause therapeutic effects in the brain isn't exactly clear."
He explains that there's the additional complication that, despite the pop psychology, functions and feelings don't map precisely onto brain regions. But that won't stop DIY transhumanists from experimenting.
Lisa Arnold, who tried the device before me, opted for a bit of a different setup, or "montage." She put the anode back behind her left ear, supposedly over a motor area, and the cathode on her right arm, to complete the circuit without inhibiting any area of the brain. She was aiming for a euphoric effect, and explained that she hadn't taken any painkillers that day for a condition she hoped tDCS might be able to help with. Bruere said she might feel some effect at some point during the process, but "it's not like you're injecting heroin."
Before she started, Vladimirov used a monitoring device to check activity in that area of the brain and found it was actually quite high already. After she relaxed a while, it went down and he was happy to go ahead.
Oddly, however, the measured activity in the stimulated area was much lower after she'd completed 10 minutes—the opposite effect to what Vladimirov and Bruere had expected. They speculated that there was either something wrong with the measurements, or that particular setup didn't work as they had thought.
While there haven't been any major adverse effects to tDCS recorded in studies so far, Vladimirov said it could be a problem if there's too much or too little activity in one area of the brain for an extended period of time. "It's not about pushing higher, higher, higher, until you break," he said. "It's about finding an optimal window and maintaining it."
Arnold said she felt relaxed, but not euphoric, though she felt no pain.
Whether or not it has the intended effects, the DIY tDCS community are eager to keep giving it a go. There are even already a few consumer devices available, such as the foc.us, which is aimed at gamers, and has the slogan, "Faster Processor, Faster Graphics, Faster Brain!"
As for me, I left unconvinced. When I left the Hackspace, I didn't feel particularly more focused, and I still had a song stuck in my head. Quite how long the effects of tDCS last is another vagary, though during the stimulation plus up to around 90 minutes after seems to be the general figure bandied around on forums.
Bruere said he's keen to tinker with his box so he can produce a broader range of effects, and also suggested there hasn't been much done so far that mixes different forms of neuroenhancement, like tDCS with nootropics. Of course, one downside of the electrical stimulation is that you have to wear some sort of dorky helmet, or at the very least a headband. It's a bit less subtle than popping a pill.