Thursday, November 07, 2013

The quest for personal enhancement - adding self brain stimulation to the toolkit?

I done a series of posts on computer games that can enhance attention, intelligence, memory, navigation and at least partially reverse the effects of aging. (See for example the post on Posit Science's Brain HQ). Interest in brain enhancement by tDCS (trans-cranial direct current stimulation) also has been building exponentially. In previous posts I've noted work showing how his gentle non-invasive technique can alter our sense of fairness, alter belief formation, enhance general intelligence,and mathematical abilities ( with these effects persisting for months), be performed with a do it yourself kit costing around $200, raising both safety and ethical issues. (Even the tDCS units used in research are often little more than a nine-volt battery with two electrodes and a controller for setting the current and the duration of the session. Several YouTube videos show how to make a rough facsimile, but fail to note that applying too much current, for too long, or to the wrong spot on the skull, can be extremely dangerous.) Another post notes a caution that stimulation enhancing one cognitive activity can compromises others.

The New York Times has published two recent article on the technique and the do it yourself approach. One, largely positive, is by Dan Hurley, basically an advertisement for his forthcoming book ‘Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power,’ and the second, by Kate Murphy, notes more cautions.
There is little data on the long-term use of tDCS, and some experts worry is that in addition to serious external burns, people who self-administer could permanently damage their brains, impairing cognitive and motor function in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
“What makes me very nervous about the ($249,made by a British firm) and homemade tDCS devices is the intensity and duration of current people are getting,” said Dr. Michael Weisend, a cognitive neuroscientist at Wright State Research Institute in Beaver Creek, Ohio, who conducts tDCS research for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force. “We have zero data on long-term use on anybody’s brain, and I have scars to prove that you can burn yourself pretty badly with tDCS.”
I've actually done most of the BrainHQ computer exercises, and note they have clear effects on my attention, perception, and speed....but I get bored after a bit and don't stay with it. Insufficient motivation, I suppose. I'm not about to start dinking around with commercial or home-made tDCS kits, especially given the evidence that boosting one cognitive capacity can compromise others. I think we ought to bloody leave ourselves alone, unless we have notable cognitive impairments than can and should be addressed. I think the self improvement craze that seems to strive for some kind of uber-human is becoming a social pathology...and don't get me started on the marketing of life-extension fantasies.

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