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Do-It-Yourself Brain Stimulation Has Scientists Worried 311

Freshly Exhumed writes "Dave Siever always fancied himself as something of a musician, but also realized he did not necessarily sing or play in perfect key. Then he strapped on the electrodes of a device made by his Edmonton company, and zapped his brain's auditory cortex with a mild dose of electricity. The result, he claims, was a dramatic improvement in his ability to hear pitch, including the sour notes he produced himself. 'Now I tune everything and I practise my singing over and over and over again, because I'm more sensitive to it.' Mr. Siever was not under the supervision of a doctor or psychologist, and nor is he one himself. He is part of an extraordinary trend that has amateur enthusiasts excited, and some scientists deeply nervous: do-it-yourself brain stimulation." With studies suggesting that small doses of electricity can: increase your memory, help you learn new tasks, make you better at math, turn you into a sniper in minutes, and most importantly make the ugly seem attractive, we can expect a lot of brain zapping in the next few years.
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Do-It-Yourself Brain Stimulation Has Scientists Worried

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  • by Spy Handler ( 822350 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @07:52PM (#44002353) Homepage Journal

    experience an orgasm?

    -Luis Wu

    • by bmo ( 77928 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @07:53PM (#44002373)

      Thread done in two. Everyone can go home now.


    • I was about to post the same thing. The scene in Niven's The Ringworld Engineers [] where Louis Wu is shown to have become a "wirehead", someone who becomes addicted to directly stimulating the pleasure centre of the brain and losing interest in all else in life, was one of the creepiest things I've ever read.

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:22PM (#44002611) Journal

        Probably safer than the pharmacological approaches to achieving the same goal...

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 14, 2013 @01:43AM (#44004297)

          Cheaper, too. This was a significant point in Niven's fictional universe: those people who were inclined to try some recreational pleasure-stimulation would become wireheads rather than buying drugs. Pay once for the operation to install the wire; after that, all you need to pay for is a trickle of electric power. None of the crime associated with drugs: there's not enough money in it to interest dealers, and the addicts don't need to turn to crime to pay for their fix.

          Since wireheads tended not to breed (how can sex compare to wireheading?), a bit of rapid evolution went on: a few centuries later, the sort of pleasure-seeking that leads to drug use was a very rare trait in humanity.

      • That sounds a lot like Michael Crichton's 1972 novel, "The Terminal Man." []

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Indeed, and the scary thing is that there's actually evidence to support the notion that ones neurobiology can cause uncontrollable rage when not treated.

          I've personally got a few brain injuries that have caused me trouble over the years. I would strongly advise people to take care of their heads as even a small amount of damage to the wrong place can cause long term problems. And at this stage, there's still a ton of research that needs doing just to understand how the brain works.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        All the furry sex was a lot creepier than the wire-head garbage. Those books were terrible.

      • This isn't the first time the concept of electro- brain- pleasure-stimulation has turned up here, and I still can't recall the title, author or particulars of a short story I read somewhen back in late '60s, maybe early '70s. "Victims" plugged the something-something into a socket 'twixt back of ear and base of skull; the tech was bootleg of legit-use stuff. The setting was on Earth, circa roughly the turn of century - the date might've not been given, but one scene was at a run-down rooming house, anothe

    • by AdamWill ( 604569 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:34PM (#44002697) Homepage

      ...make you think it's a really good idea to zap vague areas of your brain with electricity based on the hilariously incomplete field of neuroscience?

      • Precisely. The research is coming along, but unless a person is under medical supervision and has to have this done, I'd strongly recommend against it. And even then, I'd strongly recommend doing a real analysis of where one is and where one needs to be and think about it hard.

        Mainstream neurologists still don't consider sudden uncontrollable rage to be a neurological symptom, even though it often times is a sign that there's something going wrong in the brain. Especially if it starts well after one is born

      • ...make you think it's a really good idea to zap vague areas of your brain with electricity based on the hilariously incomplete field of neuroscience?

        Any part, apparently.

      • by Jeremi ( 14640 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @11:30PM (#44003797) Homepage

        ...make you think it's a really good idea to zap vague areas of your brain with electricity based on the hilariously incomplete field of neuroscience?

        Yeah, it's really dumb, but so is sniffing glue, or using meth, or cocaine, or smoking cigarettes, or any of several dozen other unhealthy habits you could name.

        There are plenty of people out their who are willing to ignore any amount of long-term consequences in return for a short-term reward.

        • Absolutely. Hell, I will confess right now. If it would cause a euphoric/high state then I'd certainly try it. I've tried all sorts of other things (many of them bad for me) and I still even happily pursue some of those substances to this day. It is a trade off though. Why would I want to live forever if I'm not having a good time? My brain is wired so that I'm generally not having a good time so I self-medicate and enjoy life, my time here, and I accept that it may well kill me at some point.

          My personal preferences, should you care, are opiates. I am a big fan. I also smoke weed but that's probably not all that harmful. I am also no longer in a position where I need to be responsible, I avoid operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, and I'm not needing to commit any criminal offenses (other than acquisition and use of said narcotics) to maintain my lifestyle. So, yeah, it is a choice in my case and it is better than the variety of prescribed things that were supposed to make me happy. As near as I can tell the side effects and health risks are actually less and lower than they were with the prescribed stuff.

          You remember that commercial back in the early 1980s about how nobody wants to be a junky when they grow up? They were lying. Lots of people want to be. Lots of people choose to be. There's a pretty sizable percentage of the population who uses but you only notice the ones who can't do so and remain functional. You only see or hear about the ones on the street corner or living in a box. They're actually a pretty small subset of users. They probably also have other issues than abuse or addiction issues. They get the spotlight because, well, frankly it's illegal and there's a social stigma attached which means we're not exactly going to go out and interview for television shows and newspapers. Many of us function just fine with families, friends, careers, and lives.

          Is it dumb? I don't think I would go that far and make that accusation. I'd say it is a choice. Some of us have no desire to live for as long as we physically can. We see no point in it. Some of us would rather worry more about quality than quantity. You can drive your Honda Accord life (it's nice enough, it's reliable, it is safe, and it makes you happy) while there are others who want to have our BMW 740ils (we have style, live fast, cost a lot more, pick up the cute chicks, are fun, and it makes us happy). The idea that we should try to prolong our lives for as long as we can is foolish, selfish, and ignorant in my opinion. Quality over quantity, any day. So long as we're not causing harm to others then I fail to see where the idea that it is dumb (or wrong, or unethical) comes into play.

          I don't blame people for thinking that way though. They've been brainwashed into that line of thought for their entire lives. We're taught that we should live healthy and long lives. We're taught that we should eschew mind altering substances. We're told that we should OBEY THE LAW! We're taught that thinking for ourselves is wrong. So, yeah, I understand people who would follow society's rules. I understand that but I don't personally subscribe to such. I'd rather experience what I can today more than I'd rather wonder about life could have been while sitting damned near useless in a nursing home bed. And yeah, I'm old. These aren't the sentiments of youthful ideology. They're the expressions of someone who's experienced it, given it great thought, made his own choices, lived according to those choices, and has had great success with his method.

          What you, personally, do or believe is entirely up to you but I'd hardly call it dumb just because you don't understand it. That seems a little lacking if you ask me. I suppose it is instinct to call it dumb if you don't understand it or have been taught to think a different way so, really, I don't blame you. I'd think the same thing too if I hadn't dared look on the other side of the curtain and think it through for myself.

          • The THC itsself probably isn't harmful, but the smoke inhalation will ruin your lungs. Fortunately there are other ways to get at the THC than burning.

            • by KGIII ( 973947 )

              I have a couple of different vaporizers though I think that's reaching a bit far into off-topic territory. I do prefer them. Another interesting thing is Marinol. Google will tell you more about it if you're curious.

      • Several answers (Score:5, Insightful)

        by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @02:40AM (#44004507)

        "Which part of the brain do you need to zap to" ...

        ...make you think it's a really good idea to zap vague areas of your brain with electricity based on the hilariously incomplete field of neuroscience?

        Several answers:

        * The part that makes someone an experimental neuroscientist of the type which are currently conducting this research?
        * The part that allow Marie Curie to kill herself with radiation poisoning before it was known radiation was dangerous?
        * The part that caused Thomas Edison to do shotgun testing of materials for a lightbulb filament?
        * The part that caused Johnny Knoxville to make the Jackass series?
        * The part that caused Geoffrey Robson to kill himself while working to improve wingsuits?
        * The part that caused Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee to allow themselves to be bolted into Apollo 1?
        * The part that caused Vijay Pande to believe crowd-sourcing science was a good idea?
        * etc.

        Pick your part.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

        There are lots of untreatable conditions that this might help with. It's risky but when your brain doesn't work the risk starts looking more acceptable.

      • But this wroks! Befor I zap my bairn, I could'nt spel, or wrote grammatical corect sentuns. Now, evrythin I wrote look like was wrote by cool-age prfessor!

      • No part. Simply indoctrinating people into thinking that life is competition and success is extremely important is more than enough.

        You shouldn't be amazed that people stuck on a red queen's race would use desperate tactics.

    • by Mister Liberty ( 769145 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:38PM (#44002731)

      experience an orgasm?

      With my 'previous' girlfriend? The visual cortex. Man was she ugly.

    • Not the brain. That was figured out years ago - the optimal place to zap isn't the brain, but a certain branch off the spinal cord. []

      He patented it too. For once patents are actually acting as they should, so you get to see exact instructions on how to build your own: []

  • by HockeyPuck ( 141947 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @07:54PM (#44002383)

    An increase in vegetables in the next few years as well.

  • Open Research... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vettemph ( 540399 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @07:57PM (#44002411)

    This is great so long as everything is published as they go. Waveforms, Impulse frequency or duration, Pulse train frequency, electrode placements, signal voltage and current. Don't let this get taken over by the industrialists.
        Also, publish your data BEFORE you use the signal. If you die, we need to know what did it. :)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      One problem with your idea... everyones brain is completely different. When actual scientists do this they do multiple high resolution MRIs of the patients brain and study them for months before trying anything. Then they apply very tightly controlled current to tiny areas of the brain. What these people are doing is just as likely to turn on the "homicidal rage" part of their brains as it is anything else.

      • And we'll get their results in 20 to 80 years.

        This approach has killed the space program.

        I see the benefits of caution but exploration is done by bold people who die (madame curie for example and a lot of american pioneers).

        • Re:Open Research... (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Kell Bengal ( 711123 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @09:35PM (#44003149)

          This approach has killed the space program.

          exploration is done by bold people who die

          Sir, I politely call your attention to the 30 astronauts and cosmonauts who lost their lives in spaceflight and training, and to whom we owe the space program's continued successes around the globe. These men and women gladly risked their lives to advance science and technology and they are heroes, every one: []

          • by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @11:15PM (#44003711)

            And the result of that was that we got *so* cautious that we essentially stopped going to space entirely.

            I politely call your attention to all the astronauts who trained and will never be able to go to space.

            Going to space is dangerous. People will die.

            Look at the numbers willing to go to Mars, one way, and die before they would on earth.

            • And the result of that was that we got *so* cautious that we essentially stopped going to space entirely.

              I don't know if we can blame that on astronauts dying. The same over cautiousness can be seen everywhere in American society now. It's what people are talking about when they complain about the "nanny state".

            • And the result of that was that we got *so* cautious that we essentially stopped going to space entirely.

              I think it has more to do with the expense and long-term commitment required for large projects, such as the Moon missions. You don't require astronauts to deploy weather satellites or unmanned probes, so why pay for sending them? Especially when NASA already has a shoestring budget.

              Look at the numbers willing to go to Mars, one way, and die before they would on earth.

              Lots of people loudly talk about t

          • by KGIII ( 973947 )

            He said "killed" which means it was alive before hand. He didn't say "prevented it."

          • Re:Open Research... (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @01:47AM (#44004313)

            By the way... how many people do you think died settling the eastern colonies of the america (not counting the native americans who they killed sooner or later)?

            How many settling the midwest? The west?

            Entire groups died to the last person.

            If sending up a rocket with 98% safety vs 99% safety safety costs 1x, 10x, -- think how many you could send to space by accepting 2 failures per hundred launches instead of 1 failure per hundred launches.

            Over 100 people died in the construction of the Hoover Dam.

            Five workers died constructing the empire state building.

            We had 3 people die on our SAP software project plus multiple heart attacks and divorces.

            At least space means something compared to implementing a software package that won't probably be used in 30 years.

            We don't need extremely expensive heroes- we need construction workers to throw stuff up into space cheap. We need a moon base extracting materials before the legal and financial hurdles get so great we end up stuck here.

        • Sort of, there's already doctors using this sort of information to help people. It's just that we haven't hit the point where implants are safe or effective for many of these conditions.

          But, some doctors do use the imaging to inform their decisions about what medications to use and to double check that the brain is responding as intended. It's not a common practice, and probably overkill for most folks, but it does seem to work.

      • Sort of, there is a ton of variability, but MRIs are pretty much worthless for this type of work. They'll show you where the neurons are, but they give very little information about how they're actually connected together.

        There's stuff like SPECT and fMRIs that will do that. And ultimately, even the highest resolution imaging is still going to be insufficient with regards to implanting things where they belong, due to the density of the brain.

        I've been reading up a lot on it lately, and I believe that in th

      • Re:Open Research... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ridgecritter ( 934252 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @10:21PM (#44003425)

        I concur with your caution that peoples' brains differ, so we might expect that YMMV regarding the results of TCDS. I disagree that "When actual scientists do this they do multiple high resolution MRIs...". That's the exception, not the rule.

        In my collection of 108 papers on TCDS, use of advanced imaging methods as a study enrollment screener happened in 7 of them. The technology seems (so far, anyway) pretty benign. For example, in one study of 815 TCDS sessions in 100 migraine patients, there were no observed adverse events ("Safety of the transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS): evaluation of 815 tDCS sessions in 100 chronic- pain patients"). Not to say that it's free of risk, nor that longer-term adverse effects won't crop up, but for those who stay within the generally used current density limits, etc., there probably isn't a lot to worry about.

        I'm much more concerned about people deciding that a 9v battery is just so inconvenient, they'll run it off that 9v wall wart. The one with the failed ground isolation. The really cheap one that fails in a way that puts line voltage on the scalp electrodes just when the user happens to touch a grounded thing. etc. Some think that because they can buy a case and motherboard at Fry's and boot Windows, they're a biomedical EE. These folks may get selected out, or become somewhat dimmer bulbs.

    • You first. A few good zaps should cure that blazing case of sociopathy right up.
    • "his is great so long as everything is published as they go. Waveforms, Impulse frequency or duration..."

      This is known as The First Principle of Exploration. Also known as "Make sure everybody knows what killed you."

  • by decora ( 1710862 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @07:59PM (#44002419) Journal

    not to mention growing hairy palms.

    • Oh, so you're a titch more hirsute. That's an acceptable tradeoff for becoming a multi-tasking number crunching crack shot with perfect pitch who doesn't forget anything. And let's throw in some beer goggles while we're at it.

      How do you go blind and become a crack shot, anyway?

    • ...and tin whiskers []...

  • Next step for an Edmontonian would generally be, "Is there a way I can program myself to only see white people?"

    • Yes, program yourself to live in rural Wisconsin, I can guarantee you won't see any non-white people for months on end.

  • by donaggie03 ( 769758 ) <d_osmeyer@hotmail.cDEGASom minus painter> on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:03PM (#44002455)
    Where can I get one??
  • Placebo effect? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mr. Underbridge ( 666784 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:06PM (#44002481)

    zapped his brain's auditory cortex with a mild dose of electricity. The result, he claims, was a dramatic improvement in his ability to hear pitch, including the sour notes he produced himself.

    How the hell would he know if it didn't? Can we get testimonials of his friends? Otherwise, I'm claiming placebo effect.

    • Same here. Unless it's some sort of TMS which actually creates electrical currents inside the brain through and electromagnetic field I just don't see non invasive electrical stimulation happening. If you count scalp and skull and everything are exists between them I just don't any significant amount of electricity passing through the brain(unless you want to burn your hair).
    • by bentcd ( 690786 )

      How the hell would he know if it didn't? Can we get testimonials of his friends? Otherwise, I'm claiming placebo effect.

      "he strapped on the electrodes of a device made by his Edmonton company"

      I claim greed effect. (Emphasis mine)

  • Forget the war on drugs. Wireheads, a la Larry Niven, are on the way.
  • by steveha ( 103154 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:10PM (#44002513) Homepage

    It is by now an old trope in science fiction: the idea that people will have electrodes installed to directly stimulate the pleasure center of their brains. It's kind of a frightening idea: on the one hand, it would be a "high" that shouldn't damage you, but on the other hand it is likely to be so intensely pleasurable that it's fiendishly addictive. Larry Niven wrote stories where "wireheads" routinely would starve to death, feeling such intense pleasure that they forgot to do anything else including eat. He furthermore imagined that the "dealers" who sold wirehead gear had an "induction" helmet that could provide a taste of the experience without implanting the electrodes, and his protagonist narrator commented that this really wasn't fair.

    This seems like a possible technology, and possible things tend to happen eventually. But I haven't heard of it happening in the real world yet. I'm wondering if it's coming.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:15PM (#44002557)
    Click here to find out how this 47-year-old local patriot discovered one "weird" old trick to stimulate the brain and end slavery to Obama's mind control.
  • It's hard enough to keep those damn mind control waves away from my skull, and they want me to trust some device made by a megacorp hooked up to my *brain*? Riiight. Listen: you keep your military-industrial-complex-approved reptilian gizmo and I'll "do" my own noggin' with the open-sauce tech from cousin Moe whom I trust. For now.

  • I remember (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Cosgrach ( 1737088 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @08:55PM (#44002873)

    I worked for a company the built medical diagnostic (EEG & ECG) and treatment (TENS) equipment. We had a few prototype stimulation units that one salesman had the bright idea of connecting up to his brain. It's output was really limited (on the order of a few micro amps) using electrodes attached to his ear-lobes. Turn it on with a low frequency sine wave (1 - 2 Hz) and watch the fun. It was interesting to watch his eyes scan back and forth like a Cylon. The sign wave was super-imposed on the normal impulses, so he could still direct his eyes, but really funny if he was trying to keep his eyes focused on one thing.

    I have no doubt that he was doing damage along the way (but hell, he was only a salesman). He claimed that it made him feel high. The stupid bastard was even driving his car with the thing hooked up.

    However, you can have all manor of fun with a good TENS unit.


  • The wikipedia entry explains tDCS a lot better than TFA: []

  • At least is a bit more targetted than doing it in the feets. It have risks, but doing it right could have its potential. Regarding the people that want to try it as the new fad without knowing what they are doing, shouldnt be much worse than getting addicted to Krokodil.
  • The amount of stimulation is over two orders of magnitude [] lower than the amount needed to cause damage, as interpolated from studies in rats. This has scientists and medical professionals worried about potential dangers, as the effects of low-level stimulation have not been adequately studied.

    Backscatter X-ray machines [] are estimated to cause 1 death by cancer every 200 million scans. The government has repeatedly assured us that these are safe, and were deployed with no regulation, no testing, and no qualit

  • I know that these scientists are nervous now that they can make women find them attractive by zapping their brains, so my advise to them is to play it cool. If they blow it with one girl, they can always just zap another to start all over again.
  • I mean, people altering their brains with drugs has never had any adverse medical or legal consequences, right?

    • if people were allowed to control their own minds, it would be anarchy - dogs and cats living together...

  • by mha ( 1305 ) on Thursday June 13, 2013 @10:41PM (#44003549) Homepage

    Medicine helped AGAINST natural selection (a little bit - mostly through helping babies survive, no need to overvalue its contribution though since its relevant mostly during lower ages (though not exclusively due to indirect effects when grandparents help raise children).

    Such movements may help increasing natural selection.

    So I'm all for it, since I'll sit at the sidelines at let other people be the lab rats to find the 0.0001% of stuff that actually works and is useful (longterm).

  • by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @12:12AM (#44003949)
    I had my brain connected once to a pulse generator via a surface grid of electrodes. (This was before epilepsy surgery at Stanford, and most of the grid was on the right occipital cortex.) During this procedure they would send an increasing series of pulses of 5, 10, 20 mA etc. down to each grid position and ask if I saw anything after each one.

    About 80% of the electrodes were actually kind of boring. They would produce a characteristic speckling somewhere in the leftward field of view at a certain radius and angle. Other electrodes made very weird stuff appear. One caused everything on the left side of the room to suddenly look extremely brightly hued. It looked like a grocery aisle with cheap fruit drinks. The colors got more intense with additional current.

    There was a problem near the end with a bunch of uncomfortable hallucinations. Every tiny little point from the pulse generator had this upsetting weird look to it, like a kitten with its head crushed. They somehow weren't going away, and I started bitching about something seeming to accumulate in my field of vision.

    They told me at this point that my brain wasn't correctly grounded to the bed frame. I wasn't able to ground it myself since all I could reach on the bed was plastic. As soon as they regrounded it, for a split second I saw some sort of bright thunderbolt approach from the left and sweep all the stuff away. It felt like a relief somehow but I'm not sure WTF I was seeing.
  • When I was younger I would take the Carbon rod out of a size C battery and sharpen one end.
    Cut an extension cord and put a rod on both ends; put the Carbon points close and plug it in: tada an arc furnace.

    I see a potential of this being much more productive now by keeping the points farther apart. :}
    of course a small warning will be included.

  • []
    " Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don't think you're weird, you're living badly." []
    "In Larry Niven's Known Space stories, a wirehead is someone who has been fitted with an electronic brain implant (called a "droud" in the stories) to st

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