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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/


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)

  • 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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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