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Important insights on the growing home use of tDCS brain stimulation: older-than-expected users, positive self-reported results for treatment of depression but negative for self-enhancement, and a couple areas of concern (severe burns, frequency)

Dr. Brent Williams is wear­ing a home­made tDCS device while his wife Madge is sport­ing a com­mer­cial mod­el. Pho­to by Kevin Liles/kevindliles.com

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At the 2017 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit last month, researcher and sci­ence writer Dr. Anna Wexler dis­cussed some fas­ci­nat­ing insights from her sur­vey of 339 home (or “do-it-your­self”) users of tDCS (tran­scra­nial direct cur­rent stim­u­la­tion) devices.

The sur­vey results have just been pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Enhance­ment (details below), and pro­vide a use­ful win­dow into who pur­chas­es tDCS devices and why, how they use them and what results they see.

Here are some of the main find­ings:

(As you read them, keep in mind that the sur­vey is not intend­ed to be sta­tis­ti­cal­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the user pop­u­la­tion at large — it was sent to peo­ple who had pur­chased a tDCS device from sev­en spe­cif­ic com­pa­nies)

1. Pro­file of tDCS users: the major­i­ty live in the US (69%), are high­ly edu­cat­ed and old­er than expect­ed (with a mean of 45.3-years-old). In gen­er­al they are ear­ly adopters of tech­nol­o­gy, with an affin­i­ty towards sci­ence.

2. Pur­pose: Near­ly 75% of respon­dents report­ed using tDCS for cog­ni­tive enhance­ment (par­tic­u­lar­ly to try and expand focus), 25% for restora­tion, and approx­i­mate­ly 40% for treat­ment; as you can see many par­tic­i­pants had sev­er­al goals in mind.

3. Depres­sion as sig­nif­i­cant indi­ca­tion: Notably, approx­i­mate­ly one third of all par­tic­i­pants uti­lize tDCS to self-treat depres­sion.

4. Adher­ence to guide­lines: Most users adhere to com­mon sci­en­tif­ic pro­to­cols regard­ing cur­rent lev­el and ses­sion length BUT not regard­ing num­ber of ses­sions: 8.4% of users self-admin­is­tered 100+ ses­sions (far more fre­quent­ly than in sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies).

5. Results: Inter­est­ing­ly, most who use tDCS for treat­ment self-report that they found the tech­nol­o­gy to be effec­tive, where­as most who use it for non-treat­ment pur­pos­es (i.e., only enhance­ment and/or restora­tion) find it to be inef­fec­tive.

6. Dropout rate: Over 40% of those who pur­chase tDCS devices either quit using the device (most­ly due to lack of effi­ca­cy) or have nev­er used the device (most­ly due to lack of guid­ance).

7. Side effects: 10 users report­ed seri­ous skin burns.

The Study

Who Uses Direct-to-Con­sumer Brain Stim­u­la­tion Prod­ucts, and Why? A Study of Home Users of tDCS Devices (Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Enhance­ment; free to read and to down­load)

  • From the study’s Dis­cus­sion: Though the home use of non-inva­sive brain stim­u­la­tion has been a sub­ject of much dis­cus­sion in the aca­d­e­m­ic lit­er­a­ture, there has been lit­tle empir­i­cal data on the prac­tices and moti­va­tions of home users. This study pro­vides the largest and most com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey to-date of users of con­sumer tDCS devices. Obtain­ing a deep­er knowl­edge of what dri­ves home users—to pur­chase and use a con­sumer tDCS device (or for many, to cease to use it)—has impor­tant impli­ca­tions, both for ongo­ing debates about the eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions of the home use of tDCS, as well as for dis­cus­sions of the reg­u­la­tion of direct-to-con­sumer neu­rotech­nol­o­gy. Thus, the present study not only pro­vides an empir­i­cal foun­da­tion on which to base pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions, but also offers a con­crete, empir­i­cal per­spec­tive on a debate that has too-often been one step removed from real­i­ty.

The Study in Context

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