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Is DIY Brain Shocking the Future of Therapy?

I bought a brain-zapping device from a person on Reddit for a couple bucks. Would strapping batteries to my head hurt me?

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that strapping electrodes to your head and running a small amount of electrical current through it can actually help your brain perform better.

Naturally, I had to try it.

It's a field called transcranial direct current stimulation, and it's getting very popular with the DIY community—all it takes is a 9-volt battery, a current regulator, and some electrodes. To do it, you stick the electrodes on your head in the correct places (this setup is called a "mosaic") and let it zap you with an amp or two of electricity for 20 minutes.

Proponents say that doing this can improve your memory and concentration and potentially reduce anxiety and depression, among several other benefits. The thought is that the electricity stimulates your neurons to fire either a little faster or a little slower than normal, which can help improve function (at least for a little bit).

If we can make it a more reliable therapy, we may be able to ditch pharmaceuticals and their side effects (perhaps in favor of whatever side effects tDCS may have; the tech isn't FDA approved and hasn't been studied enough to know for sure).

I had been interested in tDCS for a while, but wasn't quite ready to put down a couple hundred dollars for one of the few commercially available sets. A year ago, a Reddit post caught my eye—a user there said he had built a handful of devices and was giving them away. I missed out on that, but was able to purchase one from him for something like $12.

When it arrived, my tDCS holdup quickly went from being a cost-based one to one of safety.

The letter that came along with it was addressed "Dear Human," and the "device" was nothing but a circuit board and a hookup for four 9-volt batteries. Knowing nothing about electricity except that it's potentially dangerous to strap four batteries to your brain, I decided not to try it without the supervision of an expert.

And so I headed to Brooklyn College, where neuroscientist Elizabeth Chua focuses on doing basic tDCS research. Her lab tests two types of tDCS: the standard, which uses two sponges strapped to your head to send current over large portions of your brain, and HDtDCS, in which five electrodes more specifically target certain brain regions.

Chua's lab tests college students' memory both before and after doing a tDCS session, and so far results have been promising—as I mentioned, tDCS is one of the few DIY brain hacking activities that actually has some research to suggest it might actually work.

Chua hooked me up to her HDtDCS machine, which I must admit I felt much better about—it has many knobs and levers to control current and has several safety features. After that, I finally strapped my Reddit device to my head, with Chua's supervision.

Am I a tDCS believer? I'm not sure. Usually, to see a real effect, you've got to do it over the course of many sessions, especially if you want to treat things like anxiety and depression. In any case, I'm still really intrigued in the tech's future.