Zipping ahead by zapping the brain

A friend of a friend took me to her home to show me a gizmo her son had fabricated that she said boosted his maths grades. She said he had learnt online that it was a safe, painless tool you could make at home to stimulate the brain and enhance your cognitive powers.

Though this sounds implausibly kooky, scientists call this transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which is being investigated to see if it can really treat impaired cognitive abilities and enhance normal ones.

In tDCS, small electrical currents are applied to the scalp using two surface electrodes. A tiny amount of direct current (DC) flows from the positive pole (anode) of a nine-volt battery through the brain and out through its negative pole (cathode).

You can make this gadget using components that can be bought at any electronics hobbyist shop. You hook up a nine-volt battery to a 1,000 ohm resistor to produce a tiny DC of 1/1,000 of an ampere. Connect the parts up with wires that end up as metallic pads (electrodes) which you stick for three to 30 minutes at a time. Stick one to just below the hairline above your left eye if that is the brain region you want to stimulate. Stick the other to a point on the head farther away from the first one, to just above the right eyebrow, say.

The current is so tiny you might feel only a slight tingle or itch. Because the head is a poor conductor of electricity, most of it dissipates away with a tiny bit passing through the brain.

There have been no reports of seizures or other safety risks apart from mild headaches.

How tDCS works is unknown but, depending on whether the anode or cathode is applied to the brain, some active neurons in that area become more active or are dampened down, respectively. The part of the brain activated, if things work, improves in performance. It has been shown to transitorily improve verbal and motor skills, alertness, learning and memory in normal individuals and people with Alzheimer's or stroke patients undergoing rehabilitation, say.

Hopefully, when proven safe and effective, it might be commercially produced as small as an MP3 player built into a cap, say. Then when the thinking cap is switched on, you'll do better. And when it is switched off, you'll probably do better for a few more hours before the effect wears off.

There is no question that if it proven safe and effective, people with impaired cognitive abilities should use it to boost those abilities. But should the healthy who think they need a boost to their cognitive abilities also use it?

Opponents say the thoughtshaping powers of cognitive enhancement technology create a disparity akin to athletes using performance enhancement drugs. But why would disparities created by natural talent, parental wealth, social connections or plain luck be any fairer?

Opponents also worry that cognitive enhancement could render people less authentic: if it enhances my personality, it isn't really me any longer, just someone with turbocharged self-esteem.

The US President's Council on Bioethics 2003 report on enhancement technologies expressed concern that they may produce "mere feelings of contentment divorced from their natural and proper ground... severed from action in the world or from relationships with other people". But why would cognitively enhanced people necessarily find it less meaningful or be less motivated to do good like volunteering for charity and worthwhile social causes?

Opponents also worry that non-users may feel coerced into using such technology just because they think they need it to keep up with the competition in school or at work. Those who cannot tolerate their side effects would then be disadvantaged.

In The Case Against Perfection (2007), Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel argued that such inequality might lead to the "creating of two classes of human beings - those with access to enhancement technologies and those who must make do with an unaltered memory that fades with age". For all these reasons, opponents want the technology limited to treating the dysfunctional, not enhancing the healthy.

However, fans argue that, used responsibly, cognitive enhancement is no different from any other technology, from telescopes to computers - or education and good health habits - used to overcome human limitations.

They pooh-pooh the inequality of access - especially with tDCS which you can self-fabricate at home. They say that freely choosing to use it despite its risks, whatever they may be, is simply the exercise of one's self-autonomy.

Many may agree with them: in a 2008 poll of 1,400 academics in 60 countries, Nature reported that 69 per cent said they would use cognitive enhancement even if there was a mild risk of side effects while 80 per cent felt that healthy adults should be able to choose it if they wanted.

If proven safe and effective, tDCS widely-deployed could benefit a large swathe of society and many may choose it. If safe.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 11, 2013

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