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DIY electrical brain stimulation is a worrying new trend

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

(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."


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If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

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  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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