DIY Brain Stimulation for We Demain magazine
Back in July, I shot one of the coolest, weirdest, most fascinating stories I’ve worked on to date. It was for the French quarterly magazine We Demain, and it covered the DIY brain stimulation movement. This type of brain stimulation sends very small electric currents through the brain for extended amounts of time (15-25 minutes) and is believed to treat a whole host of ailments, including chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia, and poor cognitive function. It also can improve memory, advocates say. Yes, this is a real thing.
The reporter, Christelle Gérand, and myself visited a professor from Kennesaw State University (at his Atlanta home) who is a pioneer in the DIY brain stimulation movement. He has constructed a device that safely delivers the stimulation from parts that can be purchased from Radio Shack (and powered by a 9-volt battery). We also visited a medical doctor, Dr. James Fugedy (above), who treats patients with a commercial stimulation device in his Buckhead, Ga., office.
Above is Dr. Brent Williams, a professor at Kennesaw State and director of their iTeach Center. Williams and his wife, Madge, have been using this technique (known as a transcranial direct current stimulation) for a couple of years. Wired magazine did a story on him back in May, and he also publishes a popular blog on DIY brain stimulation. Williams hooked Christelle (below) up to the device for about 15 minutes while were there (I definitely would’ve have tried it, but there was no time).
Just to be clear, the device delivers a very small charge, a few milliamps, through the brain while the subject is completely coherent and alert. This is not electroconvulsive therapy, also known as “shock therapy,” which uses a much, much larger dose of current. Williams said that he sometimes feels a small tingling on the skin where the pads are applied, but not much else. The only strange thing that happens sometimes (and this is a bit freaky) is that when the pads are applied or removed from the head, a bright light may appear for a millisecond, as the current passes through the optic nerve.
Williams said he uses the device to help him focus, and he particularly likes to use it the night before giving an important presentation or talk. And by strategic placement of the pads, Williams said he can focus on the part of the brain he’d like to utilize the most. For example, he would stimulate the left brain more (since it’s believed that it handles logical thinking, etc.) before giving one of those presentations. The effects of the treatment last for many hours up to a couple of days.
Dr. Williams is wearing his homemade TDCS device while Madge is sporting a commercial model. Above are two of the TDCS devices (minus the pads that are applied to the head) that he has created at home. The top photo shows the device he most often uses (and built with parts purchased at Radio Shack), while the device in the bottom photo was constructed in a prescription bottle to emphasize that TDCS is believed to be effective in treating depression.
Dr. Fugedy models the TDCS device he uses in his office. Fugedy not only treats his patients with the devices, he trains them on how to use them at home. The machine to the right is not used for TDCS — it is a muscle stimulating device that is hardly used anymore.