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Today in Your Health - vape pens and a new, unpredictable way to smoke marijuana. But first, let's hear about electroceuticals. In addition to pharmaceuticals, illnesses like epilepsy and Parkinson's disease are at times treated with small doses of electricity to the brain. Some people, some healthy people, are trying this at home to boost brain power, raising questions about safety.
From member station KQED, Amy Standen reports.
AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Jared Seehafer is 28 and lives in San Francisco. He's trim, in good shape.
JARED SEEHAFER: I like distance hiking - 40, 50 miles, something like that?
STANDEN: Seehafer develops medical devices for a living, so he's interested in what's new in medicine. And a few years ago, he came across a research paper that caught his attention.
SEEHAFER: A study that the Air Force had done to test the skill acquisition for Predator drone pilots.
STANDEN: In the study, pilots performed better on this test after having a small amount of electricity applied to the outside of their heads. This is called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or tDCS. And usually it involves using one to two milliamps of electricity. That's roughly 1 percent of what it takes to power a light bulb. And it's painless.
Seehafer was intrigued.
SEEHAFER: If this were true, you could slap this on, it would make you 10 percent better at learning something. I think it's something a lot of people would be very interested in.
STANDEN: So he took some spare parts, duct tape, a nine-volt battery and made his own tDCS machine.
SEEHAFER: And slapped it together and tested it to see if it would work.
STANDEN: But to be a brain hacker, as this is called, you don't have to make your own machine. Consider the $250 Foc.us headset, which is marketed to gamers and has no FDA approval.
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STANDEN: There is real science behind this, at least in principle. Scientists have been experimenting with tDCS for a decade to see not just whether it can make us learn faster, but to address real problems like depression or chronic pain. They've published dozens of papers on it.
Marom Bikson has written several of them. He's a professor of biomedical engineering at the City College of New York. And he believes tDCS is promising, especially for patients who aren't helped by drugs that are on the market today.
MAROM BIKSON: There is evidently a need for a new branch of treatment. And tDCS may offer the potential for that.
STANDEN: But that's in a clinic, performed by people who know brain anatomy - where and how long to direct the current. Whether tDCS is something you could actually do at home safely and with measurable results, on that point Bikson is deeply skeptical.
BIKSON: It would sort of be like saying there's a clinical trial being running with a particular drug that's being produced in a factory under strict quality control. And then having people saying, well, I can go to my kitchen. I could start mixing all of this stuff up. And what people would be doing home in that situation wouldn't be safe.
STANDEN: In other words, you wouldn't try and cook up your own pharmaceuticals at home. So why do the same with electroceuticals? But batteries and electrodes are a lot easier to come by than the chemicals in drugs. Which means, from a regulatory standpoint, tDCS will always be hard to pin down, says Hank Greely, a professor of law and bioethics at Stanford University.
HANK GREELY: 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?
STANDEN: At this point, Greely says regulators are still trying to figure out whether tDCS is the real thing with therapeutic value.
GREELY: I think the answer right now is we don't know.
STANDEN: After all, two milliamps is just so little electricity.
GREELY: Why nine volts of current going through your brain would have any effect is hard to imagine? They clearly seem to have some effects on some people.
SEEHAFER: OK, so why don't you try and...
STANDEN: Before Seehafer put away his tDCS machine, I asked if I could try it out myself. Sure, he said. He handed me a terrycloth headband to wear around my forehead - '70s tennis-player style. And then he dipped two electrodes in saline solution and slid them under the headband.
At first, nothing. Then, right where the electrodes are, I started to feel something tingly.
STANDEN: It stings a tiny bit.
STANDEN: After a few minutes, something subtler set in. It was hard to describe - kind of half mood change, half visual effect
There's a certain sort of brightness to things a little bit.
A telephone on the desk in front of me looked oddly crisper, as though I'd sharpened it in Photoshop. And is it possible I feel more energetic, kind of? Like a little more awake?
Now this was subtle. I may have just been imagining it, although I did notice when Seehafer secretly turned off his tDCS machine to test me. When I ask experts about it later, they say they're not surprised I felt something. But it's going to take many more years of strict clinical studies to see whether tDCS is a therapy that can be useful or just another strange footnote in the long history of medicine.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.
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