By Erin Ellis, Vancouver Sun March 28, 2016
Researchers are testing mild electrical stimulation to improve brain function and mental health, but warn do-it-yourselfers to be wary of treating themselves with models available online.
Dr. Fidel Vila-Rodriguez, director of the Non-Invasive Neurostimulation Therapies (NINET) Lab at the University of B.C., is starting to lend devices for home use to people with Parkinson’s disease and depression that will deliver a weak electrical current through electrodes placed on their temples.
The machines in his experiments can’t be adjusted above two milliamps — similar to the power created by two AA batteries. In contrast, some unregulated brain stimulators sold online can deliver about 10 times that amount of current, something he calls “worrisome.” It is an amount of electricity still small enough that users might not notice an immediate effect — or danger.
“You may feel just a tingling sensation, so the perception is of low risk, in part because of that. But the truth is we don’t really know about these unregulated devices,” he says.
Vila-Rodriguez’s research uses machines approved by federal authorities. “We’re using a bonafide medical device licensed by Health Canada.”
In contrast, products sold online with names like Thync and Foc.us are in a grey area, approved by no government body in North America. They are not classified as medical devices by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada. Yet their websites promise better brain performance, relaxation or energizing as desired.
Stanford University law grad and former UBC masters student Roland Nadler has a small collection of them which he doesn’t use on himself, but rather as examples of gaps in government regulations.
“These devices are a bit before their time. Or if they have a future, it’s almost always going to be with a professional intermediary,” says Nadler, currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Centre for Law and the Biosciences in California. “It’s too complex and sophisticated of a technology for most people to do at home.”
There’s an 8,000-member discussion group on the networking website Reddit about transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, filled with home users asking each other how to use the gear, which comes with limited instructions. “What positions of the electrodes are used for depression? It is surprisingly difficult for a me to find a no bull**** guide on accurate placements. Can anyone help?” Or, more alarming, “How can I tell which cable is the anode and which is the cathode? Are the blues one and the whites others?”
Nadler says this sort of chat shows how difficult self-treatment can be. Placing the electrodes is a key step, and some sets make it easy to confuse the cathode, which is positively charged, with the negatively charged anode. Depending on the condition under treatment, the current must flow in a specific direction to a specific area of the brain. Reversing the prescribed flow of electricity could excite the brain when the user sought calming effects — a mistake someone seeking relief from insomnia, for instance, might not want to make.
“Getting the anode and cathode mixed up is serious business,” says the understated Nadler.
But the lure of better living through electricity is compelling for amateurs and professionals alike.
Vila-Rodriguez teamed up UBC’s Centre for Brain Health hoping to find out whether low-level electrical stimulation that has been found to help some people with mild depression will also work on depression associated with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system. He is currently recruiting participants who have been diagnosed with both Parkinson’s and depression to use a tDCS machine at home for 20 minutes a day over the course of two weeks.
In another research project examining the potential of tDCS on healthy individuals, Vila-Rodriguez and psychiatry resident Dr. Marlon Danilewitz plan to ask men who regularly practise yoga to add electrical brain stimulation to the mix for three days. Participants won’t know if they have received real or sham stimulations, and will later be examined for blood flow to the brain and tested for concentration and problem solving.
It is all part of a global explosion in scientific interest on the subject, while consumers are in a buyer-beware market that allows them to purchase machines to experiment on themselves despite calls from experts to ensure safety.
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