Magazine article Science News

Brain Hack: Consumers Take Their Neurons into Their Own Hands

Magazine article Science News

Brain Hack: Consumers Take Their Neurons into Their Own Hands

Article excerpt

The first time Nathan Whitmore zapped his brain, he had a college friend standing by, ready to pull the cord in case he had a seizure. That didn't happen. Instead, Whitmore started experimenting with the surges of electricity, and he liked the effects. Since that first cautious attempt, he's become a frequent user of, and advocate for, homemade brain stimulators.

Depending on where he puts the electrodes, Whitmore says, he has expanded his memory, improved his math skills and solved previously intractable problems. The 22-year-old, a researcher in a National Institute on Aging neuroscience lab in Baltimore, writes computer programs in his spare time. When he attaches an electrode to a spot on his forehead, his brain goes into a "flow state," he says, where tricky coding solutions appear effortlessly. "It's like the computer is programming itself."

Whitmore no longer asks a friend to keep him company while he plugs in, but he is far from alone. The movement to use electricity to change the brain, while still relatively fringe, appears to be growing, as evidenced by a steady increase in active participants in an online brain-hacking message board that Whitmore moderates. This do-it-yourself community, some of whom make their own devices, includes people who want to get better test scores or crush the competition in video games as well as people struggling with depression and chronic pain, Whitmore says.

As reckless as it sounds to juice a brain at home with a 9-volt battery and 40 dollars' worth of spare parts, this technology's buzz is based on legit science. Small laboratory studies suggest that carefully controlled brain stimulation can boost a person's memory and math abilities, hone attention and fast-track learning. The U. S. military is interested and is funding studies to test brain stimulation as a way to boost soldiers' alertness and vigilance. The technique may even be a viable treatment for pernicious mental disorders such as major depression, according to other laboratory-based studies.

Many of the scientists who are leading the charge, however, insist that this simple, relatively safe and cheap technology isn't ready for home use. The research is too preliminary, and such stimulation may prove to be ineffective at best or, at worst, dangerous, some say. Certain kinds of stimulation may cause unintended harm; brain stimulation is not as foolproof as many people would like to believe.

Still, "humans have a long history of playing with their brains," says neuroscientist Vincent Clark of the University of New Mexico and the Mind Research Network, a nonprofit neuroscience research institute in Albuquerque. And it's unlikely that scientists' protests will change that. Right now, scientists, policy makers and DIYers are all wrestling with whether--and how--the technology should be regulated.

Ethical quandaries as well as questions about efficacy and safety call for restraint. But demand, fueled by tantalizing news of promising studies, has largely drowned out those cautionary calls. "We are in such a fog of ignorance," says neuroethicist Hank Greely of Stanford Law School, who studies how brain research intersects with society. "We really need to know more about how this works."

The promise

The brain traffics in electricity. Minuscule electrical bursts create the signals that allow people to think, remember and feel, so it makes perfect sense that external electricity might influence how the brain operates.

That insight isn't new. A physician to the Roman emperor Claudius eased headaches by placing a live, electric torpedo ray (similar to a stingray) onto the heads of long-suffering patients. In the 11th century, electric catfish were proposed as treatment for epilepsy. In the 1800s, the nephew of Italian bioelectrical pioneer Luigi Galvani, who harnessed lightning to make dead frogs' legs jump, used electrical stimulation to treat people's melancholia. …

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