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9-Volt Nirvana

Thursday, June 26, 2014 - 03:17 PM

Learn a new language faster than ever! Leave doubt in the dust! Be a better sniper! Could you do all that and more with just a zap to the noggin? Maybe.

Sally Adee, an editor at New Scientist, was at a conference for DARPA - The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - when she heard about a way to speed up learning with something called trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). A couple years later, Sally found herself weilding an M4 assualt rifle, picking off enemy combatants with a battery wired to her temple. Of course, it was a simulation, but Sally's sniper skills made producer Soren Wheeler wonder what we should think of the world of brain stimulation. 

In the last couple years, tDCS has been all over the news. Researchers claim that juicing the brain with just 2 milliamps (think 9-volt battery) can help with everything from learning languages, to quitting smoking, to overcoming depression. We bring Michael Weisend, neuroscientist at Wright State Research Institute, into the studio to tell us how it works (Bonus: you get to hear Jad get his brain zapped). Peter Reiner and Nick Fitz of the University of British Columbia help us think through the consequences of a world where anyone with 20 dollars and access to Radioshack can make their own brain zapper. And finally, Sally tells us about the unexpected after-effects of a day of super-charged sniper training and makes us wonder about world where you can order up a state of mind.

Guests:

Sally Adee, Nick Fitz, Peter Reiner, Michael Weisend and Soren Wheeler

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Comments [69]

Michele from Detroit, MI

The discussion of the "zero sum gain" makes me think of my experiences backpacking long distances. When I would get lost, I noticed that the time seemed to pass excruciatingly slow compared to other times when I was able to mentally check out. The critical thinking state of mind that I needed to decipher a map, a trail, or orienteer was vastly different than the state of mind that I needed to pleasantly pass long hours. That's my excuse for why I got lost so often!

Jul. 22 2014 05:57 PM
Christina Angle from Richardson, Tx

I have severe depression and was told by two doctors to have shock therapy because they couldn't find the cocktail I needed to relieve my depression. My current doctor was able to find a cocktail for me right away.
Interestingly enough he did his internship at a hospital that performed this brain stimulation. He explained to me that the brain stimulation works the same way as pharmacutical drugs, the brain gets used to it and needs more. Therefore, the stimulation will need to be done more often as time goes on.
He also mentioned how hospitals will require a person to stay for long periods of time even though it is not necessary. Not surprised.

Jul. 22 2014 01:11 PM
commentator from germany

This is my personal exerience with tDCS.

after doing additional research, and finding out the exact voltage(which is rarely discussed online, esp. in DIY forus) and current, I built my own device. Then I did additional research in to which ares of the brain to stimulate for what effect.

The results were astonishing in concentration tests, like Stroop tests and pattern-comparison tests. Overuse caused headaches.
It also enhanced memorization of random information, in that over the time of use, I did not experience tiredness of the task as quickly as without stimulation.
I experienced the effects to have a little duration after the end of stimulation.

Jul. 22 2014 06:41 AM
emilia from concow, ca, usa

what happened to the download link?? its my WAY of getting radiolab in my head!! thanks

Jul. 22 2014 03:10 AM

I agree with Nate from Fargo, ND., if you've ever been involved in Athletics you can attest to being in the zone. I think these results might be acheived by getting in the right frame of mind before an activity, breathing excersices, meditation, praying..whatever you are into, the point is that we have the power to get into different frames of mind without external forces. I fear that like all short cuts, this will lead to unhealthy habits.

Jul. 21 2014 05:45 PM
Phil from Florida

Steroids for the brain? This could be a real game changer.
The foreseen and unforeseen consequences, just like the setting of a sci-fi story, set in a much- closer-than-you-think future.
Video gamers and defense department are early adopters – geeks and military. Ok not really a surprise there…
BUT
What does it do for standardized testing, for scholarships, awards, compensation, competition in general...
What are the implications for _______ (fill in the blank).
This could mark a profound change in the evolution of our species... or not?

Jul. 20 2014 09:52 PM

No one is commenting on the metallic taste from the electrical current. When you manipulate the transitional gates in the mind you are also changing the electrical signals of taste.
We are one the brink of a totally new understanding of our minds in relation to the universe and much more. What is taking place in the mind can be understood as clear to us as when we learned the world was round and not flat. Once we are exposed to the correct logic the proof is in the pudding. We once thought consciousness was the hard question and soon we will learn it only took a determined explorer to discover it was not. I enjoy listening and watching all the science shows and all the chatter in the comments. For those few willing to gain a better understanding of the human existence then we are there for you at The Autism Channel. Cornelius “Bushy” Van Eck will help you put the pieces together.

Jul. 19 2014 11:02 PM
VickyChang

Her tale where she thought 3 minutes went by in the shooting game, but in fact 20 minutes had elapsed is common to most videogame experiences. To call that FLOW is way off the mark. Videogames do that and is not news at all and you dont have to be a hardcore gamer to experience it.

Jul. 19 2014 06:07 PM
Kalinda V from Maryland

I was actually slightly disappointed in this episode of radiolab; however, not for the same reasons as some of the other commenters who are arguing about pseudo-science or tDCS. Rather, I was disappointed in the depiction of flow and in the lack of elaboration on the concept of flow based on current knowledge.
Now, I'm not a neuro-scientist, but I felt as though this segment gave only a cursory glance over the concept of flow, which has much more to it. Also, I don't like how flow was treated as some sort of ephemeral god-like state of superior intellect, which is exclusively achieved by using tDCS; when in reality, anybody can achieve flow during a variety of tasks ranging from doing rocket science to doing homework at 2 am. From what I can gather, flow has less to do with some sort of boosted iq, but more with greater levels of focus.
I can't really speak on the method of tDCS since I don't know anything about it lol, but I have an issue with presenting a narrow depiction of flow. This depiction has caused many to speculate about this and that in the comments and to essentially overestimate the flow achieved through tDCS.

Jul. 19 2014 01:05 AM
proust

wow. incredible.

Jul. 18 2014 03:43 AM
Steve from Van Isle

Thanks to The Colbert Report, I've found this wonderful site. What a cool story. Bet Darwin didn't see this coming.

Jul. 17 2014 07:59 PM
Young Azian Kidd from Asia

Really? What is Radiolab's deal with the Asian populations!?

Jul. 16 2014 04:55 PM
Nate from Fargo, ND

For anyone who has been seriously involved in athletics you may know what this feels like. every athlete has that day when they start a game and literally can't do anything wrong. You just have the right frame of mind or the right portion engaged. Your "In the Zone"

Jul. 15 2014 10:03 PM
Kylie from Portland, OR

As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I've tried all the treatment methods my various doctors have recommended. For awhile, I was seeing a psychiatrist who had me try something that sounds very similar to this. The brand name was Alpha Stim, and it was basically a 9 volt battery that you hooked up to earphone-like lubricated electrodes attached to your earlobes. (A bit of quick googling says the Alpha Stim has lower current levels than standard TCDS devices.) My doctor's experience was that it allowed patients to experience the "true calm" so they would have something to aim for when they did their own breathing and relaxation exercises. I used it for 30 minutes every day for about a week, and gradually stopped feeling the need for it. I've pulled it out a couple of times since then whenever I feel like I can't relax past a certain point, but in my experience it was useful in demonstrating that it IS possible for me to control my stress levels on my own. I never felt any of the depressive "withdrawal" symptoms mentioned in the podcast, but maybe that had to do with the device's contact points. I'm very glad it's part of my longterm treatment regimen, and even though I haven't used it for a year or two now, I wouldn't give it up for the world.

Jul. 14 2014 12:52 AM
Matt from Christchurch Virginia

Interesting to me how popular the movie The Matrix was, then more recently Inception and Limitless, we (humanity) are excessively intrigued by the topic presented in those movies, specifically the idea of brain power over "matter". Add to this a spiritual notion, most all religious speak of a spirit that is within us, part of us, or moreover is our true essence, and "being in the flow" often simply refers to listening to this "true" inner voice. Now add some conspiracy theories out there on suppression of Nicola Telsa work with electricity (most focus on suppression of free energy), and certainly this is a most intriguing web. Once again, well done RadioLab. I wonder how closely the agencies are tracking you all :)

Jul. 13 2014 09:41 PM
Eric Pomert from Berkeley, CA

Ah, the wondrous moment of radio resonance...

I have to attest that the brain stimulation story didn't pull me in much as I was listening to this podcast episode in my '98 Volvo. But towards the end of the piece, it turned into radio magic for me.

At around 22 minutes, Jad describes the difference between being bombarded by ruthless self-criticism versus just being "right there" and "in the moment." He wonders if the are "different chemical modes, or maybe electrical modes,” before he arrives at the possibility that “it feels like it’s a gift” to find himself available and at ease.

Living in Northern California, I can't begin to tell you how many people are looking for a system to "become present" in a sea of workshops and teachings selling the promise of a path to this moment. I've gone deeply down that road myself (I seem to be a mistake-oriented learner) since I was a 12-year old kid meditating in the wee morning hours. A lot of talk goes around about doing "spiritual" work that will make one more deserving of "presence." If any of those paths or techniques really worked at causing presence, we'd all be done by now. As Soren put it so well, a world that revolves around deserving and earning is one “that’s empty of true gratitude.” I think true gratitude is not owned by anyone, and is in some inexplicable way beyond the limits of the ever-shifting construct (through brain stimulation or what have you) of the oh-so-seductive “me.”

I can’t recall ever hearing anything on the radio that spoke about true gratitude without falling into some prescriptive “spirituality” about achieving a special state through personal effort. It happened quite unexpectedly in this episode. Thanks for the gift.

Jul. 13 2014 04:09 PM
What-the from Northern California

"...this guy on Youtube, a young Asian kid..." I was waiting him to describe the other people as an "older tired white divorcee" or "a skinny Lebanese-American"

Radiolab, that was a good try. Great topic but a lot of people are listening...

Jul. 12 2014 01:32 PM
joshuad31

Yes I agree that the science on this subject is incomplete. Its amazing it has been around for so long and at best scientists only have theories as to why this works the way it does. But... human experience has to be given its proper weight. In this episode we had two reporters who experienced tDCs and a few scientists who had some theories about what was happening and why. We didn't have conclusive analysis but when you look at the human experience and the depth of that experience which comes through the podcast you can perceive that there is some hidden value to types of experiences that this can generate.

Personally I can see why people pay for a gym membership if they get value from it. At first I was thinking, wow wouldn't it be great to start a company where people could experience flow for 3 times a week for 20 minutes. We don't know how it works, we don't know why it works, we don't know what side effects or negative consequences might be produced but wouldn't it be great to be able to pay money to have an experience of flow. Some people think there is a lot of value to this others not so much.

Why not let each individual decide for themselves? Not everyone wants to skydive and skydiving may be hazardous to ones health but some of us understand the risks and want to skydive. Let people sign waivers and pay to experience flow, why not. Why can't you make this into an enterprise somehow?

Jul. 11 2014 01:31 PM
Marianne from GA

I always enjoy Radiolab! After listening to this particular podcast I was reminded of a medical device for migraine that was recently approved by the FDA-Cefaly. http://www.cefaly.us/ I have been considering getting it to help control my migraines but now I am wondering if it would also have the added benefit of putting me in the flow. Thank you for this report.

Jul. 11 2014 12:21 PM
debs from Philadelphia, PA

Ok just a thought... could it be that what is happening after the electric current is actually a form of post shock? Of course literally but also emotionally?

For instance after let's say 911 (or some other major tragedy)...those few days people seem to get it. They get what matters and all distractions fall away. For those few days after people are nicer, they honk horns less, they in some ways let go of anxiety. Basically, when you take away distractions then it is easier to focus (I am sure that is why kids learn languages better). If you are literally shocking the brain perhaps you are creating that same type of environment for the brain to cause you to emotionally be in a state of shock as well. I imagine when tragedy occurs something similar happens in our brain. I'd even bet that people could play games a little better and drive a little better after a tragedy... if they aren't too sad to do so.

I don't know that this is revolutionary but more of just a quick fix. I am sure it works but creating a state of chaos in the brain will no doubt have side effects.

I did love this podcast though it was great. <3

Jul. 10 2014 02:46 PM
Liz from Chicago

The effects of the electric shock described sound identical to the effects of meditation. Meditation is learning to drop into the sense of flow at will, quieting the judging voices in the mind, seeing the world as it truly is. There is scientific research out there on meditation. Some mediators use the cultivation of what they call "energy" or "prana" as a meditation aid. I would be interested in a show exploring the effects of meditation on the brain, and what this "energy" or "prana" may be. Does it exist? Is it similar to the electric shock administered in this episode? How does meditation or "prana"/"energy" change the brain?

Jul. 10 2014 12:18 PM
Ian from NYC

I find myself curious in trying both tDCS + LSD at the same time.

Jul. 10 2014 03:31 AM
Josue from Las Vegas

I've ordered a prebuilt tDCS device kit from http://thebrainstimulator.net/purchase/. If anyone else is interested in using the device. I also recommend reading a lot. I found a lot of good links on this blog: http://speakwisdom.wordpress.com/

Jul. 08 2014 03:11 AM
Mark Peters from Milwaukee WI, USA

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/brain-stimulation-for-the-masses/

I found this review from a little less than a year ago addressing the status of the technology and research. The source principally endeavors to discourage bad and hyped science using rigorous evidence based examination. Clinical neurology is the authors profession. Among other points it cautions mildly against DIY approach and raises questions regarding the lack of oversight.

Jul. 07 2014 07:07 PM
Susan from Maryland

A fascinating piece that I enjoyed--while exercising the appropriate restraint in jumping to conclusions about a still tenuous line of research, naturally. But there's a piece of the first-hand experience that is clearly missing. Ignoring the sample-size-one issue, it's not clear from Jad's experiment whether the electrical stimulation was causing him to rapidly learn how to view stereograms, or whether it was allowing him to do it well at the time with little effect on his subsequent ability.

Did Jad try looking at stereograms after the experiment was over? Did he find that he could view them more easily than before the tDCS? I'd be interested to hear any updates on the aftermath.

Jul. 06 2014 12:59 AM
Damon from SF, CA

I found this <i>fascinating(/i>, and totally want to cobble together a DIY-tDCS rig! However, I can't help but note that this comes up the same week as <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/people-prefer-electric-shocks-to-being-alone-with-their-thoughts/373936/">an <i>Atlantic</i> article</a> about a recent study that suggests people would rather subject themselves to electrical shocks than to be alone with their own thoughts...

Jul. 05 2014 12:57 PM
ET from MA

This has all the hallmarks of junk science. Front and center are dramatic anecdotal experiences. The supposed "studies" are worthless, yet are put forth as evidence. Who ran the studies? What controls were in place? An obvious control would be to tell the subject they were being stimulated but not actually do it (or do it in the "wrong" place). What percentage of those folks would report "incredible" results? How do the purveyors of this technique know where to place the electrodes, or how much or what type of current to inject? Billions of dollars funds incredible research and studies of brain science. Couldn't a scientist who has published peer-reviewed work on brain stimulation have been found to comment on this hokum?

Radiolab is very often a great show, but this episode needed a lot more skepticism. If you're going to cover science then you should be checking in more with some real scientists.

Jul. 05 2014 03:49 AM
Chris Mayes from Scottsdale, Arizona

The end of this episode is the best. The "wiping of the fog from the window". People are too used to being sub-par, so when we are at our best the general population doesn't like us. Open your eyes to being the best you can be and give others the opportunity to open their eyes as well. If they don't like the "optimal you", let them eat shit and chew on it in their own dismay.

Jul. 05 2014 01:43 AM
Damazing from Mid-Atlantic

In sports they call this feeling being in the zone. There is an entire cottage industry that will help athletes get into the zone, I wonder if they will begin to use this technology as well.

Jul. 04 2014 07:19 PM
Ian from Canada

I really enjoyed this story! I felt you guys were quite clear in stating this is unproven and under researched.

That said I still felt like someone was trying to sell me snake oil. Potential treatments for numerous mental disorders, learn better, shoot sharper, train faster, feel amazing! It all sounds just a little too good to be true, and when it sounds that way it usually is.

Jul. 04 2014 02:44 PM
Doron Meir from Copenhagen

This was deeply interesting in terms of the state of "flow" in the creative process.
On my site (creativityWise, if you're interested) I'm teaching methods of getting more flow into the process - but without eliminating structural thinking and planning. To me, creativity is all about being able to combine these 2 forces of the mind.

Anyway - this podcast made my wonder whether my methods really create FLOW, or whether they only sort of mimic that condition. And also whether by mimicking FLOW you can "trick" the brain into that actual thing.

I'm also a fan of fast-paced 1st person shooter games, and I've definitely experienced FLOW in that area. That could even be the reason I play these games in the first place. Now I wonder if there's a connection between creativity and FPS games. I wonder if anybody ever studied this...

Hope something of that made sense to someone :) In any case, an AWESOME episode of an AWESOME podcast, thank you so much!

Jul. 04 2014 07:08 AM
Em

If I may create a new conspiracy theory here: The army have this new performance enhancement and mood control technique that looks promising. Unfortunately it looks a bit Brave New World and they're nervous about the PR consequences, not to mention the cost of large scale studies/side effects etc. What to do?? 1) Start a bogus New Agey/Futurist theory called "Flow" and get a couple of evangelical motivational guys to front a high tech organization and sell the idea to the public, notably young men with psycho-social problems who can relate to their "backstories". 2) Have an operative ( a young man of the demographic they want to appeal to ) upload a YouTube video telling kids how to make one of these devices at home. 3) Have a couple of other operatives upload videos detailing the results of their experience, as a blueprint for the marks, I mean subjects, to follow. Basically not only are these kids unknowingly lining up to be military guinea pigs, they are actually footing the bill for it too. 4) An online trend is started which peaks the interest of science "journalists", and bob's your uncle - there's a ton of free publicity, more guinea pigs line up, and since regular citizens are doing this "voluntarily" it all seems like it's just an interesting and benign phenomenon/fad that the kids are getting into.
Deviously clever and simple eh? With no legal/financial consequences. Just sayin'.....

Jul. 03 2014 03:58 PM
Kevin Fink from Seattle, WA

Great episode! I listen to RadioLab, TED talks, Timothy Ferris, etc for the same reason - to hear interesting perspectives on subjects that I likely wouldn't encounter in my day-to-day life. I don't expect any of them to be scientifically rigorous. In fact, they would lose their value if they were, as I'd be exposed to maybe 1% of the subjects - it takes a long time to properly digest a scientifically-rigorous presentation. If I'm interested in an area I'll go deeper, which will likely include journal papers or the like.

Lately I've been reading and thinking a fair bit about Flow and related experiences and what they reveal about the nature of our brains/minds/selves and our perception of reality. Many different perspectives seem to reveal facets of the same thing, and based on this show, tDCS can play a role in that. The limited explanations in the show didn't make much sense to me - whether because the people interviewed haven't really thought deeply or from the right perspective about it, or because they are hiding something, or because of the filter of the show itself, was not clear. I've read several books as well as a couple of recent research studies that provide a reasonable hypothesis about what tDCS is actually doing - rather than enhancing specific skills, I suspect it is suppressing competing brain activity, allowing the subject to perform a specific task more effectively. This can be done in many ways, from meditation to intense physical activity to certain drugs, but the underlying mechanism is probably very similar. By allowing the brain to focus on one thing it can do that thing better.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking introduction to tDCS!

Jul. 03 2014 01:23 PM
lneumannca

Did nobody at Radiolab ever read Flowers for Algernon?!?

Surely there are better ways to get into a state of flow than zapping your head!

Also, what about long-term unwanted effects? Some pieces are missing from this story.

Jul. 02 2014 11:51 PM
justin from Brooklyn

This is the kind of stuff that got me started with Radiolab. Using science (or (possible) physical phenomena, at least) to probe deeply into an idea. I hope this resurgence holds.

Jul. 02 2014 10:40 PM
epolaris1

Now that's Radiolab..

Really excellent episode. Some folks on here have actually berated you for the choice of examining tDCS but I personally think you perfectly teetered on the line between skepticism and optimism (which actually reflects the general attitude secularly amongst scientists).
The science part was solid.. But I really appreciated the segue into basically what it means to be good at a particular task (assuming that were not zapping our brains).
Even though it wasn't explicitly said, its an exploration of the behavioral factors involved in excelling at tasks, at least for some.
And if you're really listening, it makes you think about the bigger ideas surrounding tuning up and toning down individual habits of thought in order to excel at a task (not just mechanically using electricity but personally).
Plus, the bit at the end where the editor of "New Scientist" describes her moments of clarity following the experiment kind of encapsulated that.
For me, the way the science bit was intertwined with the more relatable humanistic parts along with a really appropriate soundtrack in some parts is what succeeded in making it almost greater than the sum if its parts in my case..

So in short, I think you covered all bases in a memorable and extemely interesting way..

(The "electricity" sound bites were excellent. Good fun)

Jul. 01 2014 08:11 PM
Emily

Radiolab - thank you for being so cutting edge! Jad and Robert - I was so excited when this episode popped up! *MUCH APPLAUSE*
This technology has been around for years but researchers have just begun to examine its treatment applications in earnest. It is cousin to ECT, TMS, rTMS but uses a much lower current. Big pharm like GlaxoSmithKline has invested a lot of money into studying this technique. Sample sizes in published studies are small right now, yes. But, tDCS is not voodoo - there are plenty of clinical trials in the works at the moment. Stroke, depression, parksinson's are the major applications of interest right now. There are strict limitations - sessions can only last 20 minutes and current strength cannot exceed 2mA (for reference, up to 80mA tens unit stimulation is used in physical therapy). A major limitation right now, as mentioned in the short is that this technique cannot target small populations of neurons very well. In its current state tDCS can only target broad areas of brain tissue. For this reason, only some brain functions or deficits can be examined in conjunction with tDCS. However, improvements in focality will come in time.
You can learn more by reading the article located at the following link: http://www.aipass.org/files/TDCS_State%20of%20the%20art.pdf

Jul. 01 2014 05:07 PM
Daniel from Wyomissing, PA

As I heard the point at the end about being able to order this up, I wondered how different it could end up being than ordering up coffee or having coffee supplied at work places.

Jul. 01 2014 03:12 PM
Nick from Rigby, ID

Was anyone else reminded of Zaphod Beeblebrox in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with his lemon-zesting helmet? "Trust a hunch from a man whose head is fueled by lemons?"

Jul. 01 2014 01:53 PM
Kyle from Los Angeles

I think this show is just scratching the surface on two very interesting related issues. The first is flow -- check out the flow genome project and the new book by Stephen Kotler (the Rise of Superman). The second is the "biohacker movement". Interestingly, Stephen will be the headline speaker at this year's biohacking conference -- http://bulletproofconference.com/

I would love to see radiolab visit this year's conference and do some more detailed work on flow states and biohacking. Also, anyone interested in the "dark side" of flow should listen to some of Stephen's interviews. He talks about the addictive nature of flow and the fact that when you come down from a flow state that it can be very similar to coming down from a drug induced high. In his podcast on bulletproof executive (http://www.bulletproofexec.com/transcript-109-the-rise-of-superman-with-steven-kotler/), Stephen talks about how flow is like a combination of the most powerfully addictive drugs on the planet.

Jul. 01 2014 01:23 PM
Depression from canuck

Electroshock therapy has been used since the '70s to treat depression. Apparently it is still used, tho in much weaker amounts (voltages?), and it probably has a nicer name. When the reporter mentioned she felt great, and her internal voices quiet for a few days -- I wondered if she's clinically depressed, and just got a bit of unwitting Electroshock therapy.

Jul. 01 2014 01:07 PM
Tony Cooper from az

WOW!!!

Jul. 01 2014 11:53 AM
dsubar from Los Angeles, CA

Your recent podcast, "9 Volt Nirvana" reminds me of two things, a previous Robert Krulwich show on NPR "Going Binocular: Susan's First Snowfall" and meditation. I will discuss the latter first.

The flow state describe and the clarity seems very similar to what people who meditate describe as their experiences. Any thoughts about the relationship between the clarity of applying electricity and meditation?

On a second thought, when Jad describes being able to see the stereoscopic pictures, it reminds me of the Robert Krulwich show on NPR "Going Binocular: Susan's First Snowfall" where people develop binocular vision late in life. Has there been any work to help people develop binocular vision with the technique? I wiould volunteer to be a guinea pig.

Jul. 01 2014 04:52 AM
jsuplp

you are my favorite show of any media bar none.
as such i look forward to your shows. by the way i'm a subscriber.
the only problem i have is with the shorts, i would like to hear an hour every week.
p;ease keep upp the good work,

Jul. 01 2014 01:47 AM
kyle

There has been extensive research in this field. A lot of it proves that electricity can enter the brain, as well as brain waives controlling equipment.

Jun. 30 2014 07:25 PM
Jon

@ Ricky, please read up on a technique called EEG, or electroencephalography.

Jun. 30 2014 03:12 PM
Ricky

Sorry, but this sounds like such B.S.

The theory of their delivery mechanism makes no sense. If one is putting electricity over the area of the brain that is supposed to be effected, they should know the flow of electricity does not go directly through the skull.

Electricity flows on the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance is not through you skull! Electricity flows on / through one's skin rather then through the thick bone of the skull and the only place that electricity can go into your brain from the outside of your skull is THROUGH YOUR EYEBALLS.

Years ago my father was tasked to doing some biomedical research on using electricity as anesthesia. Some people had already been testing this out on prisoners thinking this was a great idea. His biomedical research in this area was related to how electricity moves and travels on a person's head - it doesn't magically enter through the thick bone of the skull, it moves through the moisture of your skin and in through your (wet) eyeballs - the moisture in one's mouth would naturally be conductive to the flow of electricity as well. This is why people who receive shocks of electricity can black out / lose their vision momentarily.

Whether or not there are proven results on this should be weighed against the dangers one can occur from sending electricity through their eyes. But the theory of how this works sounds like a complete fabrication - perhaps the electrical voltage is a stimulation that is making one more alert but I doubt this is really as effective as they claim it is.

Jun. 30 2014 02:31 PM
Chris Barron from Tampa, FL

I really enjoyed this story. Thanks for putting it up (and for all the other ones too)!

Jun. 30 2014 10:18 AM
Nate from Providence, RI

I think many of you are missing the point of what the show is about.

From their About Page:
"Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience."

It is a show about curiosity. Plain and simple.

Jun. 30 2014 09:16 AM
Ted Michelini from PDX

Scientific research cannot be done by laymen doing DIY self experiments, it CANNOT be done. The bias is intractable. The "Science Reporter" did better the second time she did the sniper program, is this a surprise? The head buzz may be indistinguishable from a placebo effect in this scenario. There may be something there but its only through double blinded controlled studies you'd get at it. And the incredible breadth of purported effects makes it very hard to hone in on what to test. Does zapping the neck serve as a control negative? Does zapping your ankles? Everyone concentrates more when zapped, its the basis for much animal training. Wide eyed wonder does sell better than rigorous science, as Radiolab has been (perhaps inadvertently) trying to prove recently. Disappointing.

Jun. 30 2014 08:58 AM
tunie from Hawaii

A commercial tdcs headset went out for sale last year:

http://www.foc.us/

Along with an announcement article:
http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/162581-foc-us-the-first-commercial-tdcs-headset-that-lets-you-safely-overclock-your-brain

Jun. 29 2014 06:11 PM
Elle from Maui

I LOVEd this topic and am really grateful they did a show about it. Agree, a bit more info would have been great, like a question to the developer about long-term skill retention, etc... Even though it's new technology there must be some documentation about that, at least.

As for safety issues regarding all the DIY tutorials out there, would love to see a pamphlet leaked with at least a basic, and comprehensive if possible, diagram of which brain areas serve what - though anyone can google this, and how to hook them up. Fun Fun Fun! Can't wait to build one. Also, love that you guys tried it in studio! That was brave. Thank you!

Jun. 29 2014 05:39 PM
sepiae

regarding the claim that radiolab had been 'unscientific' with this one: i'd say they'd demonstrated their disbelief quite enough. it was also made clear that this is fringe. fringe not necessarily meaning pseudo, it can also mean little explored. that it isn't complete nonsense actually shows in what else is known, or rather observed, in the interactions between brain and electrical stimulants. and yes, it's a short, meaning if there'll be enough to make a feature out of it, this is a 1st stint at it. one of the bunch had a story, so it was explored. the lack of peer-reviewed research, as complained in some of the comments, might also have to do with this, mainly, especially if one is critical, it should serve as a kick for trying to find out - when one disagrees especially. meanwhile Jad did what one best does before learning more, he tried it himself. if anyone thinks his and Sally's legs got pulled, take it up with them.
as for the dangers of DIY, it's a lil late for warning disclaimers when, as featured, half of youtube users seem to be obsessing over it.
regarding the addictive properties [for lack of another word], i'd guess you can scrap the 'maybe'. people usually associate addiction with substances, but we can get addicted to pretty much anything. people, for instance. the one chap described who'd done it hundreds of times seems to have developed, well, 'a habit'. provided we say it works, it's a stimulant, ok? the effect appears to have a somewhat euphoric aspect, listening to Sally. so yes, 'course it's potentially addictive. because so much is.

Jun. 29 2014 04:37 AM
Chris Gurin from Philadelphia

The idea of using electric current to alter brain chemistry is certainly not new, and for those of us suffering through depression, anxiety disorders, and ADD/ADHD, this may be of real benefit. I consider anything that might improve cognitive ability and alleviate the suffering caused by depression, and all the dead-end treatments, is well worth further exploration. The only negative commentary I can make about this particular episode is that they have discussed an issue with profound implications in a "Short": please, let's explore this further. Are there any peer-reviewed studies of this? Any clinical trials? Please, I've known too many people who suffered with depression and associated cognitive decline. If it improves quality of life, it might save lives.
Thank you

Jun. 28 2014 08:07 PM
Rubin from DC

Hey Jad! Hey Robert!

I'm a long time fan and check the site compulsively for updates. That being said, I was very concerned with the lack of safety disclaimers in this episode. I think that this technology might reveal fantastic insights and have a plethora of applications but, as of today, the proper research has not been concluded to know how safe it is.

I was alarmed when you revealed it was relatively effective at improving functions, extremely easy to make, and extremely cheap, all without warning your listeners not to try it at home. With such a lack of understanding of the impacts, I would highly recommend that you edit the podcast to include warnings that listeners should not run to their nearest RadioShack and hook batteries up to their brain.

Jun. 28 2014 05:27 PM
Sunny

Oh for goodness sake all you snipers. This was a Radio Lab SHORT. And I sincerely doubt that any of those commenting who complained about the spareness of the background information given do not posess the skills necessary to institute a Google search and find links to quite a bit of information.
And one of my first thoughts as well, was that the drug companies would go crazy should just come into the mainstream. Let's see, $300 dollars a month in perpetuity for Adderall, or $40 in parts. Hmmm.

Jun. 28 2014 01:30 PM
Rider

Lost a lot of respect for the show with this episode. Practically everything about this screams pseudo science and the placebo effect. Nothing in these studies is controlled for, they barely even qualify as studies.

Terrible par science reporting. Really bottom of the rung.

What's next an episode about binaural beats.

Jun. 28 2014 05:21 AM
Matthew Huckabey from So. Cal

I can't imagine a world without this program. Why don't you pracks spend more time donating and less time chiding?

Jun. 28 2014 01:44 AM
Stephen

I agree with the comments saying that this is another exciting episode with great storytelling, but I also agree with those that say this episode seems to be lacking a bit of the usual diligence and closer inspection that tend to be the hallmarks of Radiolab. When it finished, I couldn't help but thinking, "Wait, that's it?" Perhaps, that's because this is an honestly really interesting but quite new area of research, or perhaps the producers didn't think it was THAT exciting. But to me, as a just-out-of-college-but-still-learning-a-lot-for-work youngin', this totally makes me want to go to a Radioshack, but also can't stop me from wondering how much different this might be from something like taking Ritalin – temporarily effective, but detrimental in the long term...

Anyway, if more research is done on this subject, perhaps you could do a follow-up podcast, someday? I'm guessing there would be plenty of interest for such a more in-depth story.

Jun. 27 2014 10:56 PM
Lyte from Texas

Very interesting show!

Did the topic learned (e.g. sniping) stay with the person after X number of days? Or was the task learned lost after a time?? I think that would dictate the true value of this process.

Thanks!

Lyte

Jun. 27 2014 07:33 PM
Xavier from Texas

This was the worst episode, ever. You could hear how sceptical Robert was throughout the episode! Maybe sceptical is putting it lightly, more like..he (along with anyone with even the tiniest amount of brain power-pun intended) didn't want any part of this lie. Radiolab has had PLENTY of REAL scientists on past episodes that gladly went into depth of how things in their fields worked. This was some military guy that could could sense had no idea himself and a phone call with a scoentist saying "well....." More like, well f*ck no it's not real, is this a real phone call? Jad, calling Robert afraid? It's not fear that makes a sceptic not allow a stranger to attach things to their body, it's a money hungry ass that forgets about his influence over young minds and their curiosity of science outside of their boring classrooms where their teachers are underpaid. You guys have a real opportunity here and you're throwing it away.

Jun. 27 2014 07:25 PM

Thank you Jad and Robert for another exciting episode! I don't think the criticism of your episode is at all warranted since you guys clearly discussed how not enough research has been done on this subject.

I'm thinking that the lack of research could come down to the fact the TCDS and similar technologies have been in science fiction and people are scared of it, and if you combine that luddite instinct with the fact that drug companies have billions of dollars invested in using pharmacological treatments even if a 20$ device could potentially be used to treat a whole range of diseases without the myriad of side-affects that all drugs have. (I think the average number is 7? also no-one has died from the low amounts of electricity)

For anyone like myself who heard this episode and wanted to go deeper down the rabbit hole this site has several youtube videos from the Summit on Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation at UC-Davis

http://www.diytdcs.com/2013/10/summit-on-transcranial-direct-current-stimulation-uc-davis-sept-5-2013-videos/

Jun. 27 2014 05:15 PM
Daniel

This was the scariest radiolab episode I've ever heard. Maybe tDCS IS great, but you made it clear that there is only limited research available, especially about any long-term effects. Any semblance of a disclaimer was overwhelmed by the bias in this story, and I'm afraid of the possibility that what you just described sounds like an apparently amazing and accessible drug that could have extremely serious consequences because it hasn't been tested enough. Maybe there's no problem. But what if there is? We don't have enough information to know yet, but you just made everyone listening to this episode (including me) look for the nearest RadioShack.

Jun. 27 2014 04:40 PM
Jon from Ann Arbor, MI

I wasn't going to leave a comment until I heard Sally talk about how much she "craved" the stimulation, and how she might potentially think of tDCS as addicting.

tDCS itself is not a drug, but the effects it has on brain chemistry might be very drug-like. And in the long run it may turn out that tDCS is tremendously effective and lacks the ill effects associated with drug addiction and drug withdrawal.

It's impossible to say without more research, long term research on greater sample sizes would be particularly fascinating.

At this point, I'm skeptical. The way I see it, alteration of brain chemistry by a foreign method, be it drug usage or electrical stimulation, should result in a compensatory effect, effectively your body regulating this change in brain chemistry. This compensatory effect, either down-regulating or up-regulating any number of neurotransmitters can potentially cause problems when the tDCS is removed, i.e. withdrawal.

Now, this is obviously not the intention of its creators. Their aim (as I understand it from this segment) was to stimulate massive numbers neuronal pathways in hopes of triggering the single appropriate expert pathway for a given task, thus accelerating the learning process. The withdrawal issue probably comes with the fact that this technique is "a sledgehammer, not a scalpel". The huge numbers of pathways being stimulated could regulate any number of unforeseen bodily functions (why people taste metal, etc) and until the method can be fine tuned toward scalpel status, the danger is in stimulating these unforeseen pathways that regulate pleasure, rewards, or any number of other brain functions, which then might lead to addictive behavior in the stimulated user, and perhaps withdrawal effects in the time periods between tDCS sessions.

This is just my educated guess, and I've no formal involvement in this field of study. It does look promising, but could probably use some fine-tuning, as with any procedure!

Jun. 27 2014 01:40 PM
Alex

I used to use one of those ab belts that gives you those tiny shocks to work your muscles while you watch TV and stuff your face, but every now and then it really would give me this weird depressed feeling, not just because i was a chubby man with an electro belt around his waist, but as a definite result of the tiny shocks.

Jun. 27 2014 01:32 PM
Rob

What about the depression studies? Are you dismissing all those studies by saying that the sample size is small?

If you are going to talk about self-reported negative effects of tDCS - how about adding a few self-reported positive effects (effectively life changing for some bipolar / depression sufferers)?

Very poor and biased reporting

Jun. 27 2014 09:25 AM
James Fugedy from Atlanta

The physiological effects of tDCS described here are authentic, but the subjective interpretation and explanations presented are tenuous. Having used tDCS over a 7 year period personally and to provide relief for patients with treatment-resistant psychiatric, neurological and chronic pain conditions, I have not encountered such profound and prolonged effects as Ms. Adee describes after a single tDCS treatment. The immediate effects of tDCS are relatively short-lived, clinical improvement results from long-term potentiation occurring after 5 or more daily treatments.

There is also a significant placebo effect effect present in tDCS studies, with sham stimulation providing up to half the improvement resulting from the authentic treatment.

I have never found tDCS to be addicting in any way. In fact tDCS has demonstrated benefit for the treatment of addiction and reduction of craving.

The conscious or unconscious self-serving hype of tDCS achieves notoriety but can result in unachievable expectations and subsequent rebound condemnation as just another scam. tDCS is an exciting procedure with great potential, not an electrical copper bracelet, but the benefits of tDCS need to be described in terms of proven scientific data. Individual testimonials prove nothing, but they can be the basis of studies to authenticate or disprove findings.

Jun. 27 2014 08:08 AM
Russell from Australia

Entertaining and wonderful story weaving. And fascinating. I obviously don't share the above sentiment, although that might change with a 9-volt experience...

Jun. 27 2014 07:13 AM
SmallChange from Berkeley, Ca

Radiolab has always held a high status in the podcasts that I listen to due to their diligence. This one makes me question that...

Jun. 27 2014 02:02 AM

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