Shockingly, DARPA’s Brain Stimulator Might Not be Complete Nonsense

Where does your mind jump when you hear the mention of electroshock therapy? The use of electrical current to treat various medical conditions has a long and controversial history. Our fascination with the medical applications of electricity have produced everything from the most alarming of patent medicines to life-saving devices like pacemakers and the Automatic External Defibrillator.

The oldest reference I could find is the use of the torpedo fish to allegedly cure headaches, gout, and so on in 43 CE. Incidentally, Torpedo torpedo is an awesome species name.

Dosage: Apply live fish as needed to face? Source

Much more recently, there has been interest in transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). In essence, it’s a technique by which you pass an electrical current (typically about 2 milliamps) between strategically positioned electrodes on your head. The precise reason to do this is a bit unclear; different journal articles have suggested improvements in cognition, learning, and/or the potential treatment of various diseases.

I think most of us here spend a lot of time studying. The idea that a simple, noninvasive device can accelerate that is very attractive. We’ve covered a few people building their own such devices.

Unfortunately, what we want to be true is irrelevant. Superficially, this looks like a DARPA-funded panacea with no clearly established mechanism of action. Various commercial products are being sold that imply (but as usual, don’t directly state) that tDCS is useful for treating pretty much everything, with ample use of ‘testimonials’.

While tDCS can be prescribed by a physician in some countries to complement a stroke rehabilitation regime, for off-label purposes you may as well just go apply a fish to your face. Let’s dig into the literature and products that are out there and see if we can find the promise hiding amidst the hype.

What Exactly is the Problem?

On further research, I found a well-written review article pointing out several important flaws in tDCS research. The review defined five major areas where current tDCS research was falling short.

Across different studies, tDCS treatments reported a variable response both between and within experimental groups. Before it can be considered a potentially useful treatment (or enhancement), that variation needs to be either understood or reduced. The authors of the review pointed out a distinct lack of work in this area. There is also variability between different tests on the same test subject. Some studies that measured the effect on different days have reported unreliable effects, with some days presenting a cognitive enhancement, and other days an inhibition. It’s far from clear what we can expect a medium or long-tern tDCS treatment to achieve.

There are also problems with the sham treatments. A sham treatment is to a procedure, what a placebo is to a medication. In a sham treatment, an experimenter goes through the motions of performing a treatment, without actually applying it. This is so the subjects (and ideally the experimenter as well) are unaware about whether the treatment was actually applied. This is called blinding and is an important element of clinical trials. In a strong study, the only difference between treatment and control groups should be the actual treatment. But out of 80 tDCS studies, the reviewers found that less than 15% had set up proper control groups.

The motor/cognitive interference issues faced by tDCS are certainly an odd ones. Some studies have associated mental and physical activity during or after tDCS treatment with the nullification of any benefit. If true, this is difficult to control for because it’s difficult to precisely control what a subject is thinking. This may seem like a minor point, but currently tDCS is sometimes prescribed for stroke rehabilitation. Stroke rehabilitation commonly involves physical exercises. So beyond developing better experimental studies, understanding this potentially confounding factor could lead to improvements in stroke rehabilitation.

And finally, it turns out that sponge electrodes are often used in tDCS studies. Hair not being a great conductor of electricity, some studies used ample quantities of saline solution to make the required connection. It turns out that makes it hard to control exactly where the current is flowing.

Overall it looks like there were some issues to solve before taking tDCS cognitive enhancement seriously. The lack of good control groups alone is an important concern.

So I was quite surprised to read a study published this October (PDF) in a high impact-factor journal, detailing an experiment that dealt with some of these critiques. It also featured statistically significant results, with relevant effect sizes. Is it enough to begin biohacking though?

Improved Methodology

In their study, they subjected two male rhesus macaques of different ages to tDCS targeting two different brain regions. Macaques are the most frequently used animal in cognition studies to better understand the human brain. The macaques were given a visual foraging task and their performance measured with infra-red eye tracking.

Achievements include: beating us to space, cloned before us. Well done, dear cousin! Source

That doesn’t provide data to deal with differences between subjects, although they did perform an MRI scan of each subject and use that data to build a mathematical model to try to ensure that the same areas of the brain are being stimulated between subjects. Measuring between-subject variance is just not part of the scope of this study though, and that’s fine.

Variability of treatment effects on a single subject is a strong point of this study. The subjects performed 1-3 blocks of 75-100 trials per day for multiple days. I couldn’t identify exactly how many days in the paper, but from Figure 3A it looks like it was quite some time. The results appear to be consistent over time.

They also used sham-stimulation (‘placebo’) techniques to set up proper control groups. Additionally, they measured whether the sham stimulation technique had any effect on local field potentials in the target brain areas, and the differences between the sham and actual treatment were quite clear.

Motor and cognitive interference wasn’t really accounted for beyond requiring that the animals remain seated before and during the experiment. That’s understandable, I imagine it’s difficult to instruct a macaque what to think, so this also seems simply beyond the scope of this study.

Finally, they didn’t use sponge electrodes, instead opting for pads with conductive gel applied, and adhered in place. They measured a variable impedance, but tolerated that rather than douse everything in saline solution.

Overall this study seems to have addressed some of the shortcomings present in tDCS research. But what did they find? Something quite interesting, but misreported in recent news. They found that the macaques subjected to tDCS learned the foraging task significantly more efficiently.

Figure 3B. Behavioral results. Adapted from “Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Facilitates Associative Learning and Alters Functional Connectivity in the Primate Brain” by M. Krause et. al., 2017, Current Biology, 27, p. 5.

The measure they used is called an N50, a measure of data contiguity. This is used in psychology as a measure of associative learning, but a 40% lower N50 score is not the same as saying a 40% faster learning rate (as was commonly reported in recent tech news). If the measure being used was the mean (average) then the reporting would be more correct.

They’ve also presented their tDCS results as consistent with a specific proposed mechanism of action: modulating the timing of neurons spiking. Moreover, they measured local field potentials (LFP) and associated changes in power and coherence of some frequency bands with the accelerated learning observed. LFP is similar to the electroencephalograms (EEG) we’re more familiar with here, with the main difference being that they are measured using thin electrodes embedded in brain tissue rather than on the surface of the scalp. It’s by no means a complete and testable model of how tDCS may enhance learning, but it looks a lot like progress.

Using tDCS in Commercial Products

Of course, the above is no reason to put faith in present commercial device manufacturers. The legal standing of such products in the United States is also rather interesting (disclaimer: I’m interested in most things) and has itself been covered by journals.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that I was too quick to dismiss the potential of tDCS. It has been approved for the treatment of some medical conditions, and it was wrong of me to assume that further applications are impossible. I still won’t be building one as there are just too many valid criticisms out there, but it looks like the research could at least conceivably bear fruit. I very much doubt it will be anything so convenient as doubling my learning speed for the price of a few milliamperes, but I’m excited to see where the research goes nonetheless.

Resources

The citation for the journal article referenced here (in case useful) is:

Krause et al., Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Facilitates Associative Learning and Alters Functional Connectivity in the Primate Brain, Current Biology (2017), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.09.020

You may now begin making references to a certain movie franchise, you maniacs.

48 thoughts on “Shockingly, DARPA’s Brain Stimulator Might Not be Complete Nonsense

  1. Pretty interesting stuff, last month i was interviewed for a company that made equipment for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a procedure were the brain is simulated from the outside by a magnetic field. Before the interview i took a quick look to see what it was, and fund that in some cases TMS could be useful.

  2. “You may now begin making references to a certain movie franchise, you maniacs.”

    Surprised you both mostly jokingly made fun of commenters as well as didn’t bother to at least mention this in your article.

    This process is extraordinarily broad in the current format and incredibly questionable in terms of how it is currently being implemented. We are trying to work with atoms and instead are using a very large hydraulic shovel all the while having absolutely no idea of what else might be impacted.

    Reminds me of fitting people for shoes by using x-rays.

    1. I’d be even harsher than that — at least fitting shoes using x-rays clearly worked, even if it was harmful. I wouldn’t say tDCS has been proven safe or effective for any type of cognitive enhancement. At this stage it could very well be harmful as well as ineffective.

      I know very little about movies and memes and stuff like that. I just can’t keep up. Thank you all in advance for tolerating my woefully outdated cultural references.

    1. Adding a DC offset causes a neuron’s resting potential to depolarize or hyperpolarize, making it easier or harder to fire, which may also make it easier to change the unaltered condition via repetition(IE learning), which may account for the long term affects.

      1. That sounds like trying to speed up traffic on a certain route by slightly increasing the duration of random green lights…. maybe it’ll work, and maybe you’ll gridlock the whole city.

      2. Yeah but wouldn’t applying that across millions of brain cells at once, in the broad area between the electrodes, do something like give you a stroke, a fit, or just quickly kill you, if it did anything at all?

        I don’t suppose anyone put a multimeter into one of these brains? To see if there’s an actual voltage across it? Even if there is, when spread over a million cells, how much difference would a few volts make? A few hundred or thousand volts, OTOH…

        1. The membrane voltage is quite low, -70 millivolts, needs only 15 millivolts change to fire a neuron, and the current is sub picoamp. The efficacy of tDCS is dependent on current, so most of the tDCS voltage goes to overcoming skin/bone resistance.

      3. Seems there needs to be a standardized way to determine minimum (may already be known though not so publicly disclosed) amount of energy required and localization for the individuals specification condition and requirements. This is for real kids. Been known for a while. Do a control F and search my login jafinch78 and see my links to John Williams work.

    2. Think about T.E.N.S. therapy also. I recall growing up that the Soviets used to use this stuff and that is why even GBPPR notes how they used to do mind control stuff also… though doesn’t get into details. John Williams does. Wow, cost a little to find out more though!

  3. I still have July 2017’s Nuts & Volts magazine in my backpack. I decided I want to make one, and my PCB’s from Express PCB just arrived last week. I’m currently in the process of putting one together. Working for a medical device contract manufacturer helps with the electrode side.

    So I will be finding out shortly if it will raise my IQ to a “Sheldon Cooper” level, or if I’ll just catch one fire.

  4. My wife has some chronic health issues. Although she is quite rational, when traditional medicine offers no solution all that is left are alternative therapies and holistic doctors. She reads a lot and if she finds a group of people in a similar situation to hers who have found relief, even if it can’t be explained, she looks into it.

    And boy there are a lot of quacks willing to claim great results if you open your checkbook. The the typical trick is for the practitioner to be evasive when describing how effective it is. They’ll cite anecdotal cases, but are sure to cover their butts by saying, “I can’t promise it will work for everyone, but I’ve seem some really tremendous progress in patients just like yourself who are resistant to other treatment.” That when when it fails, he/she can say, too bad, you are in the fraction of people who aren’t helped.

    Getting to the point, one holistic doctor pushed for brain electrostimulation. We googled around a bit and incredibly, a new medical clinic had opened up walking distance from our house offering such services. But reading the “about us” page showed that they have zero training or relevant background in this. The only doctors in this clinic are the husband and wife who own it. He is a GP, and she is a pediatric doctor. Both are relatively young doctors too. I read up more and found that this technology is on part with pyramid power. At least there is a believable mechanism in this case, but it is lacking repeatable evidence.

    What I infer from all of this is that this is the new hotness and it is just a cash grab. There is no established protocol on the placement, polarity, levels, and duration and frequency of treatment. I’m glad people are investigating it, but it is not nearly ready to roll out to the masses. But there are clinics willing to do it anyway.

    1. I wish more people did as much research as you did with a clear head.

      When I see people peddling fake or unproven medicine to cash out on people’s illness and hope, it makes me furious. That’s basically where this article came from: I saw the tech news pushing out buzzfeed about this as if it is nearly ready for general use to cure/augment everything, and charlatans ready to cash out on the trend. So I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion in the last paragraph, and I’m disappointed to hear about that clinic.

      Because of my bias it was admittedly hard to judge the paper I read on it’s own merit. I had to read it about a dozen times. Easier to listen with the intent to reply, than listen with the intent to understand I guess.

    2. My local christian radio station sometimes advertises a service that “fixes your anxiety and depression” by “recording” your brainwaves and playing them back to you as audio, which makes your brain “automatically correct the problem.” It’s amazing the kind of garbage people can get away with.

      1. I think the issue is system validation and standardized validated methods. There is in fact something there and maybe overtones of fundamental harmonics can have a similar effect… though what sounds like you are saying isn’t the way that is valid. Like brain waves… you’d want stimulated to counter depressed and depressed to counter stimulated with other focus signals and thoughts related from off the top of my head. Being emotionally stable or desired mood with valid thoughts to balance out wise and logically seems correct more.

  5. I did research the he’ll out of this…but I built one my own tDCS awhile back, a couple 9V, a 2mV current limiting diode,a potentiometer and an analog current display. Some copper mesh and sponges to make a pair of 2″ pads on a head band. Getting the placement and polarity right is the critical part to the outcome. I tested initially with placements expected to increase hand eye coordination and played some FPS games for simple feedback on its effect. After some placement tuning, I was seeing about 60% increase in end of match scores( 15ish kills to 25ish). It sit something I haven’t been able to do before though. Even minor improvements in hand eye coordination can do that so it wasn’t magic, it is more akin to playing “in the zone” forcibly.

    I used it when studying for my fundamentals of engineering and professional engineering tests, passed both first try. I wouldn’t say it definitely helped, but whether it was a placebo or worked the results were what I wanted. (And I did only study for the PE for a month, three months is commonly considered minimum prep time with longer recommended..)

  6. I’m all up for resetting certain hormone regulating nerve sets: i.e. resetting the perception of pain via shock treatment… but if it changes the personality in a significant way without the permission of the person-under-surgery and if they can’t remember their past self before the adjustment:
    Then it is the same thing as killing one person and replacing that person with another: but in the same body.

    Think, having a brain transplant, the brain is the real you… so when the other brain is in your body… that is no longer you.
    Now imagine that the body you are about to be sewn into was owned by a criminal personality in a country that still allows occasional hangings and they don’t realize that someone else is in that body… So your old failing body goes to rot (Say caused by a car crash) and your replacement body is about to be hung!

    Either way: Thought control (neuron level), cranial tampering, brain damage… they are all some what a bit of death to the original personality. Hence why they say, “Stroke victims… the quicker you get medical help for them, the more of them you save”

  7. I used to Pocket everything for later readings. But here I pdf the pages I read to get the commentaries as well. You guys are just awesome. Another great time dropping by Hackaday !

  8. As the article pointed out, its very difficult to design a study to determine what, if any, the effects are, as the measures are ‘cognitive tests’, which themselves are hardly reliable. Psychology studies also suffer form this, vague measures of success, very rarely replicated, and results can be twisted to prove anything. Also, whilst it mentioned sham treatments, because one can feel the ‘tingle’ when the current is applied, it isn’t possible to do a sham treatment.

    Performing a test, being treated (be it active or sham treatment) then performing the same test sounds like a good idea, but the subjects will often perform better on the second run. The sham treatment should cancel this effect out, but with just TWO subject, there are bound to be statically significant differences.

    Alas, just because a study is double blind placebo controlled, does not mean it’s results are solid – its a relative thing to reduce biases, not an absolute guarantee that the results can be trusted.

      1. Right… he does have some great information and tutorials on sound, mind and body assault EMF/EMS systems capabilities and other interesting ES/TS systems. More proof that the “sonic assaults” and other “TI”, “DEW” and other claims that many make on the web are in fact more real than most can imagine without reading into.

        Also, proves that the “Fake News”, “disinformation agents/agencies” and “black PSYOPS” is more mainstream than most imagine. You wikipedia search for LRAD’s, Sound lazers, Active Denial Systems, Sonic blasters and other devices that are main stream consumer grade also.

        The most interesting that make people who do not believe in the Cuban Embassy Assaults is that we used to be able to buy “SCANNERS – The DEVICE!” and “The ULTIMATE WEAPONS & LAB DEVELOPMENT SYSTEM.” Thankfully, those are not on the market now. Imagine having like with a fingerprint or spectral database, the human body resonance frequency database. Wonder why the NSA TEMPEST standards exist… yeah… so we don’t have main stream Van Eck Phreaking and hacking of our minds as much.

        This stuff needs to be more public and I can’t believe how the media lies about all these medical devices used as weapons.

      2. The latest revelation thought that is disturbing to me and I haven’t found anywhere online is the 5G systems capabilities.

        5G has been approved for frequencies that combine to make the 95Ghz Active Denial W-Band System that can potentially be used to cattle prod people if people don’t stand up to this. See the 5G wikipedia.com link noting 28 Gigahertz, 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands approved. Also, adding the 2.4Ghz wifi signals to the background environmental conditions will compound and conceal more criminal activities with more alibi’s, scapegoats and fake news.

        39 + 28 + 28 = 95
        37 + 28 + 28 +2.4 = 95

        = Scary stuff potential with multiple towers and/or repeaters (transceivers).

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