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Challenge: How to spur meaningful, targeted & safe adoption of emerging neurotechnologies

neuroelectrics_capA cap that treats depres­sion? Check the sci­ence before get­ting excit­ed (The Guardian):

Yes­ter­day, an arti­cle in the Entre­pre­neurs sec­tion of the Guardian pur­port­ed to reveal a “cloth cap that could help treat depres­sion”. This claim has caused some alarm in the neu­ro­science and men­tal health fields, so it’s impor­tant to look a lit­tle more close­ly at what the man­u­fac­tur­ers are actu­al­ly claim­ing.

The piece in ques­tion con­cerns a prod­uct from Neu­ro­electrics: a soft hel­met con­tain­ing elec­trodes and sen­sors. Accord­ing to the company’s web­site, it can be used to mon­i­tor brain activ­i­ty (elec­troen­cephalog­ra­phy, or EEG), or admin­is­ter light elec­tri­cal cur­rents to dif­fer­ent areas of the brain in order to treat cer­tain neu­ro­log­i­cal and psy­chi­atric con­di­tions (known as tran­scra­nial direct cur­rent stim­u­la­tion or tDCS)…

The prob­lem is that when a new devel­op­ment occurs or a new approach is found, it doesn’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly mean it’s wide­ly applic­a­ble or even effec­tive for every­one. The brain is furi­ous­ly com­pli­cat­ed. There is no mag­ic bul­let for brain problems…The arti­cle sug­gests that a vari­ety of neu­ro­log­i­cal prob­lems could be treat­ed by using the cap’s elec­trodes to chan­nel a low-lev­el cur­rent through “prob­lem” areas of the brain. In terms of evi­dence, a pro­ce­dure called Tran­scra­nial Mag­net­ic Stim­u­la­tion (TMS) has been shown to be use­ful in treat­ing depres­sion and oth­er con­di­tions, but TMS involves pow­er­ful mag­net­ic fields being used to stim­u­late spe­cif­ic brain regions, which requires bulky equip­ment and trained oper­a­tors. Ergo, it’s hard to see how this, although a proven treat­ment, could be pack­aged into a mar­ketable prod­uct…

We’re talk­ing about direct­ly alter­ing the brain’s activ­i­ty with an elec­tri­cal device here. Such things should not be done light­ly by your aver­age per­son with no rel­e­vant exper­tise. The prod­uct men­tioned in the arti­cle is cur­rent­ly intend­ed for the med­i­cine and research fields, not the aver­age cus­tomer. How­ev­er, the report­ing seems to imply that home use is immi­nent.”

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  1. Some­thing real­ly does to be made more clear in the arti­cle: a non-con­tact mag­net­ic field can influ­ence brain func­tion, so too can a (typ­i­cal­ly very weak, much less than TENS, and noth­ing like EEG!) direct cur­rent applied to the scalp with elec­trodes.
    The for­mer is appro­pri­ate to the clin­i­cal set­ting, the lat­ter lends itself to sim­ple bat­tery-dri­ven con­sumer prod­ucts.
    As to their mer­its, I have as yet no first hand knowl­edge but in the inter­est of debate I think such tech­ni­cal dis­tinc­tions need to be explic­it.

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