DIY Neurostimulation Can Be Really Dangerous

Nancy Crotti

July 11, 2016

3 Min Read
DIY Neurostimulation Can Be Really Dangerous

Despite online plans and inexpensive materials, actual scientists say it's a no-no.

Nancy Crotti


Handy folks who want the kind of jolt that caffeine can't give have been turning to self-stimulation of the electrical sort--to their brains.

Neuroscience researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University are warning DIYers not to try this at home, or anywhere else. Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) for enhanced brain function can have "unintended results," according to an open letter in the July 7th issue of Annals of Neurology.

Enthusiasts claim that the tiny shocks, which last for 10 to 20 minutes and are hundreds of times smaller than what one would experience in electroconvulsive therapy, can improve concentration, alleviate depression, and improve memory.

Besides the obvious possibilities of burning skin and electrical machinery malfunction, the Penn and Harvard scientists list several possible and unintended consequences:

  • Stimulating areas of the brain beyond those just beneath the electrodes sticking to one's scalp. Currents can flow in unpredictable ways between electrodes, changing brain function in unintended ways.

  • Brain stimulation doesn't happen in a vacuum. tDCS can affect the neurons that are active at the time of stimulation, leaving dormant ones unaffected. So whatever the DIYer is doing at the time of stimulation, be it math or meditation, could cause different changes in the brain. "Even activity occurring before tDCS or the time of day tDCS is administered may change the effects of stimulation," the letter says. "Which activity or time of day is best to achieve a certain change in brain function is not yet known."

  • Enhancing one type of brain function may cost other areas their oomph. Since most tDCS studies concern only one or two functions, scientists cannot tell where other tradeoffs may occur, whether immediately, or long after the self-zapping.

  • More is not necessarily better when it comes to electrical stimulation. Small differences in amplitude or duration can cause the opposite of the desired effect.

  • Everybody's different, and that goes for brains, too. Factors that can affect how tDCS may alter brain function include age, gender, hormones,  handedness, cognitive ability, neurological or psychiatric disorders, medications, recreational drugs, neurotransmitter levels, previous brain stimulation, and even differences in head anatomy.

  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Researchers have performed tDCS studies on patients with brain diseases, with informed consent and the intention to change brain function long-term.

"Consider that the level of acceptable risk is different for healthy subjects, who in general are functioning quite well and thus have less to gain, and more to lose," the letter says. That goes double for children, whose brains are still developing, who haven't been studied, and who may not understand the risks of tDCS.

If you're really dying to make a DIY device, try one of these. The risks will be more obvious, and you might actually help somebody. 

Nancy Crotti is a contributor to Qmed.

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[Lightning image courtesy of Marc Wieland on Unsplash]

About the Author(s)

Nancy Crotti

Nancy Crotti is a frequent contributor to MD+DI. Reach her at [email protected].

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