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Hacking The Brain With Electricity: Don’t Try This At Home

Publication Date: 
May 19, 2014
National Public Radio - Shots
Amy Standen

Professor Hank Greely comments on the difficulties of regulating the practice of using electricity in attempts to improve brain performance for NPR. 

It's the latest craze for people who want to improve their mental performance: zapping the brain with electricity to make it sharper and more focused. It's called "brain hacking," and some people are experimenting with it at home.

The idea's not completely crazy. Small jolts of electricity targeted at specific areas of the brain are used to treat diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson's, typically with tiny devices that must be surgically implanted.


But batteries and electrodes are a lot easier to come by than the chemicals in drugs. That means that from a regulatory standpoint, tDCS will always be harder to control, says Hank Greely, a professor of law and bioethics at Stanford University. "If the FDA wanted to regulate it, how in the world could they regulate something where people can buy the raw materials for 25 bucks and make it themselves?"

Regulators are still trying to figure out whether tDCS has real and lasting therapeutic value, Greely says. After all, 2 milliamps is such a little amount of electricity, he points out. It's going to take many more years of strict clinical studies to determine whether tDCS is a therapy that could be useful or just another strange footnote in the long history of medicine.