DIY electrical brain stimulation is a worrying new trend

There's still a lot even doctors don't know about it.

DIY electrical brain stimulation is a worrying new trend
(Dierk Schaefer/Flickr)
  • Scientists are experimenting with applying electrical current to brains as a potential therapy and enhancement.
  • A wave of DIY brain-shocking is worrying experts.
  • Would you ever zap your own brain to see what happens? DIY and direct-to-consumer devices are available, but researchers have called for an open dialog with the DIY community about the risks.

Transcranial electrical stimulation, or "tES," involves applying mild, controlled electrical shocks non-invasively to a subject's brain. Scientists have been interested in learning if and how tES can address psychiatric problems and maybe enhance creativity and cognitive abilities.

Now, otherwise-normal people are performing tES experiments on themselves using transcranial direct current stimulation, or "tDCS," in which a mild, direct current is delivered to the brain via electrodes placed on the scalp. Doctors are concerned. A paper published in Creativity Research Journal by a team of Georgetown psychologists warns that this is dangerous territory to be playing in. The potential dangers are unclear, as are the possible benefits, and the procedure and hardware are unregulated. There are already direct-to-consumer products available, and there are build-your-own instructions online.

Why are scientists interested in tES?

Electrodes are applied to a test subject's head prior to performing cognitive tasks. Researchers are interested in studying how tES affects cognition, fatigue, mood, and other aspects of the mind.

(Airman Magazine)

The underlying idea

According to a 2017 article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, scientists are exploring these methods as a way to "establish an association between the application of weak electric currents to specified locations on the scalp and changes in a behavioral index of interest. An implicit assumption of this approach is that the electric currents modulate neural activity in the regions beneath the scalp locations and accordingly affect behaviors supported by these neural regions."

Why scientists care

It's not just curiosity. The above article also notes that such procedures "can modulate a wide-range of behavioral processes, and ameliorate deficits in several neuropsychiatric disorders." In particular, electrical stimulation has been shown to be useful in treating depression.

It's important to note that tES is not electro-convulsive (ECT), or "shock," therapy. Rather, tES involves much smaller charges of electricity than the more radical ECT.

Some tantalizing research, including earlier work at Georgetown, suggest that it's possible to boost one's creativity with the application of electrical current to the brain. Study co-author Adam Green—who also contributed to the new paper by warning of the dangers associated with home-brewed tES—made tES's potential clear in 2016: "The findings of this study offer the new suggestion that giving individuals a 'zap' of electrical stimulation can enhance the brain's natural thinking cap [and] creativity." Noting that this constitutes "a departure from traditional research that treats creativity as a static trait," Green explained, "we focused on creativity as a dynamic state that can change quickly within an individual when they 'put their thinking cap on.'"

That's not all. That study's other author, Peter Turkeltaub, pointed out electrical treatments' promise for resolving functional brain issues. As an example, he offered "People with speech and language difficulties often can't find or produce the words they need. Enhancing creative analogical reasoning might allow them to find alternate ways of expressing their ideas using different words, gestures, or other approaches to convey a similar meaning."

The concern about DIY tES

A homemade tDCS controller.

(Kanno Yamada)

The new paper, "Neuroethical and Social Implications of Using Transcranial Electrical Stimulation to Augment Creative Cognition," by Adam B. Weinberger, Robert A. Cortes, James Giordano, and Green, says that home-use and direct-to-consumer products raise issues that are important to address when considering "the viability, safety, value, and provision of tES" particularly in regard to "clinical, occupational, and lifestyle applications."

Giordano told EurekAlert! that "DIY applications can pose certain challenges in that constraints may not be appreciated or adhered to, and in some cases, not regarded."

That this trend has emerged isn't that surprising, according to Green, who said, "There are multiple potential concerns with DIY-ers self-administering electric current to their brains, but this use of tES may be inevitable."

Part of the danger, though, lies in so much still being unknown about the way the brain works and the manner in which it interacts with electricity on a fine-grained level. One type of damage is especially worrisome to Green, who noted that "anytime there is risk of harm with a technology, the scariest risks are those associated with kids and the developing brain."

The trend is not totally out of control, and there may be an upside

The Brain Driver, a direct-to-consumer tDCS device.

(BrainDriver)

Giordano recognizes that "the DIY community is certainly not cavalier or a proverbial 'wild west' environment. Many DIY individuals and groups employ independent institutional review boards, or establish self-regulating oversight committees to guide the scope and tenor of their work." And he admits a possible benefit to all this freelancing, saying "the nature of DIY engagement can also provide an environment of avant-garde iterations of science, technology, methods and applications. This is not necessarily a bad thing, per se, as it may, in fact 'push the envelope' to some extent."

"But there is what I feel to be justified concern that such attempts could incur safety issues," continued the neuroethicist. "In that light, we have called for an ongoing dialog with the DIY community to enable improved communication of techniques and effects so as to remain aware of what's being done, how, and the outcomes of such work that may be important to advancing the field and clinical care of any adverse manifestations."


U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
Keep reading Show less

COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

The misguided history of female anatomy

From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.

Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • The history of medicine and biology often has been embarrassingly wrong when it comes to female anatomy and was surprisingly resistant to progress.
  • Aristotle and the ancient Greeks are much to blame for the mistaken notion of women as cold, passive, and little more than a "mutilated man."
  • Thanks to this dubious science, and the likes of Sigmund Freud, we live today with a legacy that judges women according to antiquated biology and psychology.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

Why do holidays feel like they're over before they even start?

People tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly.

Quantcast