Before diving into something potentially exciting, there needs to be a disclaimer. What’s being explored in this article should not be tried at home nor is this an endorsement to seek out a potentially available product.
With your curiosity piqued, it’s time to talk about transcranial magnetic stimulation. The potential therapy is non-invasive and inexpensive, and sessions would barely interrupt your daily routine. The benefits could include improvements in cognitive function, language skills and mood. While promising, the science is far from conclusive regarding its use or potential side effects.
Not Quite Shock Therapy
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) involves a small electromagnetic coil placed on the targeted area of the head to stimulate nerve cells. The electromagnetic pulse could activate the part of your brain that helps regulate emotion or the left frontal lobe, known as Broca’s Area, that acts as the speech center of your brain.
Currently, TMS is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of severe depression in patients who have not responded to other types of treatment. A repetitive TMS session generally lasts between 30 and 60 minutes and does not require anesthesia. Side effects are minor, ranging from headache to scalp irritation at the contact site. Serious side effects such as seizure are rare, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A key advantage to transcranial magnetic stimulation is its targeted nature. The pulses penetrate approximately two inches into the brain, which means only the targeted areas are stimulated. TMS can be effective in a clinical setting, but a whole cottage industry has popped up around stimulation therapy with claims of improved learning and memory.
Expanding Your Mind
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) is similar to TMS as it’s a noninvasive process but uses electrical currents instead of magnetic fields. Electrodes are placed on the individual during a task where a direct current stimulates the brain for 30 minutes. An Air Force training study involving pilots selecting drone targets while receiving tDCS saw improved accuracy for 40 minutes instead of a decline after 20 minutes, reports Scientific American.
If that result bears out on a larger scale, that means learning and training time could be cut in half. Whether it’s studying for a test, learning a language for fun or a general desire to learn more, tDCS could be a way to “hack your brain,” according to the Economist. Reduced time training or learning could also lead to new innovations as more people could enter fields that require advanced skills. For students, testing will no longer be feared but embraced. It’s not just about personal betterment but a potential road map to an improved, well-educated society.
Formal studies indicate tDCS could be another alternative treatment to severe depression, similar to TMS, while another study revealed the treatment’s potential to improve language skills. Young, healthy participants performing naming tasks had faster reaction times and improved naming performance. The improvements were observed well after the tDCS session.
Scientists are excited about the potential of tDCS, but it’s still in the early phase of research. Unlike TMS, it has yet to be approved by the FDA for clinical treatments. That has not stopped some intrepid individuals who have created at-home devices using a headset and a 9v battery and have shared their experiences on a popular forum on Reddit.
Many users swear by tDCS and its ability to improve overall learning speed or performance on more abstract tasks. However, any device that can be purchased online is not approved by the FDA, nor are the long-term effects understood at this point. Like with any claims of a potential breakthrough, it’s best to add a grain of salt to every boast.