The future of brain-training
Can electrical stimulation and ‘smart drugs’ boost brainpower?
Strapping electrodes to your skull to stimulate your brain with a buzz of electricity might sound scary, but done properly, non-invasive ‘transcranial direct-current stimulation’ (tDCS) is safe – it uses a minute charge and feels tingly but not painful. tDCS is extremely well-researched – it features in more than 2,000 studies published in mainstream academic literature – and has been found safe and tolerable, even for children.
So would you benefit from tDCS? Many studies have found that it improves a wide variety of cognitive skills, and helps relieve mood disorders such as depression, but there are some studies that show minimal or no benefit. Generally, around 10 to 20 minutes of tDCS a day seems to have modest, cumulative effects. Most studies have been conducted on people with brain problems, however, so results can’t always be applied reliably to those with healthy brains.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the effect of tDCS depends on where the electrodes are placed on the head. There is a ‘sweet spot’ (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’) which tends to be the default option because it has positive effects on mood, memory and cognition. Other benefits require different placements. Some tDCS devices come with a ‘map’ of electrode locations.
© Scott Balmer
There are dozens of DIY devices on the market – established makes include foc.us and TheBrainDriver. To date, there are no legal barriers to the direct-to-consumer sale of tDCS devices, but do your research before buying. Some are expensive machines aimed at research, which include features that are unnecessary for home use. At the other end of the spectrum, the cheapest, home-made tDCS devices may not have reliable timing mechanisms or adequate safety measures, such as an automatic cut-out in the event of an electricity surge. There is limited independent research on how well consumer tDCS devices work, however.
‘Smart drugs’ is an umbrella term for hundreds of substances claimed to boost brainpower. About 12 per cent of university students are thought to use smart drugs in the hope of improving their performance, with many available to buy easily online.
Also known as ‘nootropics’, these include some prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, which are licenced for attention-deficit disorders, and modafinil, a treatment for narcolepsy. These have proven benefits for patients, but whether they work for healthy people is less clear. And they can have adverse effects, so you would be unwise to take them without advice from your GP.
Smart drugs also include herbal supplements, which may claim plenty of proof of efficacy, but have not been put through the rigorous trials needed for prescription medication.
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