Electrical Brain Stimulation — A 21st Century Addiction

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Whenever biologists try to explain the central nervous system to laypersons, they tend to liken it to an electrical system, with signals going into and out of the brain. And in large part, it’s as good a simile as any because the neurons do send electrical signals hither and yon. So it should come as no surprise that by giving the brain a mild zap of electricity, some people think you can make the brain function better.

It’s called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and the science behind it is pretty promising. One study shows that a little tDCS can improve math skills. It’s so promising that the U.S. military is using it to improve the performance of its personnel. There is even hope that this could improve the quality of life for millions of invalids or injured, stroke victims for instance.

Of course, this is fantastic news, and like all great scientific breakthroughs, there’s some jackass out there who is going to screw it up for everyone.

One such example is a company (which I decline to name as it doesn’t deserve the attention) is selling a device that sends electrical impulses to the brain. Why? Well, it has an ad out that says, “A headset for gamers, take charge … Overclock your brain.” Uh, yeah, I want to tinker with the way my brain functions by using a device that may or may not work as advertised just so I can kick more ass in “Battlefield 4.”

Hannah Maslen from the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University is concerned. She warns, “If they make claims about gaming, that is very far removed from the sort of treatment claims that might be to do with helping stroke patients or people suffering from depression.”

Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, also of Oxford, told the BBC, “You can use stimulation that might not be beneficial for you, you need to know how long to stimulate, at what time to stimulate and what intensity to use.”

However, that isn’t what has me thinking about tDCS as a potentially bad idea. Back in 1954, researchers James Olds and Peter Milner accidentally discovered that you could stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. Back in 1970, sci-fi giant Larry Niven wrote “Ringworld,” the protagonist of which (Louis Wu, in point of fact) was a recovering wirehead (the device was called a “tasp” because marketing people don’t write science-fiction stories). Now a generation later, we have companies selling tDCS devices that can clearly be abused. It’s only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, starts selling a tasp — a way to zap your pleasure center directly. No more need for intermediary substances like wine, morphine or molly.

How addictive could this be? In 1972, while the ink on “Ringworld” was still drying, a man identified only as patient B-19 had an electrode implanted in his brain to “treat” his epilepsy. And as a result, “He was permitted to wear the device for 3 hours at a time: on one occasion he stimulated his septal region 1,200 times, on another occasion 1,500 times, and on a third occasion 900 times. He protested each time the unit was taken from him, pleading to self-stimulate just a few more times.”

In 1986, a 48-year-old woman had deep brain stimulation (related to what we’re talking about here, but not exactly the same thing) to treat chronic pain. The article from “Pain” speaks for itself:

“At its most frequent, the patient self-stimulated throughout the day, neglecting personal hygiene and family commitments. A chronic ulceration developed at the tip of the finger used to adjust the amplitude dial and she frequently tampered with the device in an effort to increase the stimulation amplitude. At times, she implored her [the researcher] to limit her [the patient’s] access to the stimulator, each time demanding its return after a short hiatus. During the past two years, compulsive use has become associated with frequent attacks of anxiety, depersonalization, periods of psychogenic polydipsia and virtually complete inactivity.”

Now, this research in my books is horrifically unethical, but at least there was some kind of medical oversight (no matter how flawed). The commercial versions hitting the market now won’t even come with FDA approval, let alone administer the jolt under a physicians care.

So, let’s forget the war on drugs; drugs won. I can’t wait to see how the authorities play the war on electricity.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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