The Motherboard Inside Your Brain

Brain scientists are working to turn on and off behavior with electricity—and possibly motivation and optimism, too. How a few milli-amps of electric current could change your life.

05.17.15 4:01 AM ET

“You do look glum! What you need is a gramme of soma.” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Let’s say you’re feeling blah, and need a jolt of something to pep you up. Or you just berated a barista for no good reason. Wouldn’t it be nice if a technology existed that could shut down these unwanted behaviors as easily and safely as flipping a light switch?

Perhaps more crucial to who you are, and to who we are as humans, what if scientists could also use this mind tech to turn up or down attributes like willpower and enthusiasm, making your brain feel either charged up or pleasantly numbed?

The technology in question is electricity—delivered not in huge jolts like those that animated the creature in Frankenstein, but in steady, low-amp currents gently applied to a person’s skull and brain. It’s an old technology, used by physicians since at least the time of ancient Rome to treat depression and other maladies of the mind. (Roman physicians used electric eels.) In more recent centuries scientists have dabbled in using electrodes to deliver varying milli-amps of juice up until the 1960s, when neuro-electrical stimulation was largely abandoned in favor of drugs.

Now researchers are again exploring what they call transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, as a possible alternative to meds that don’t always work, and can cause unpleasant side effects. Researchers place simple electrodes on a person’s scalp and turn on the current, usually under 2 milli-amps, bathing the brain with either negative (cathodal) or positive (anodal) currents. These work to excite or suppress synaptic firings in specific regions of the brain—say, in the prefrontal cortex, home to decision-making, some behaviors, and motivation. Subjects are supposed to feel either amped up or mellower depending on the charge.

As reported in a recent New Yorker story by Elif Batuman titled “Electrified,” neurologists in hospitals such as Beth Israel in New York City have treated patients with chronic pain and depression using tDCS. Healthy people are also trying tDCS, with the do-it-yourself (DIY) crowd posting how-tos on YouTube, and articles appearing in the New Yorker and other publications.

Critics insist that many experiments using tDCS do not adequately account for the placebo effect, and point out that reactions of individuals vary widely. Optimal dosages and long-term effects are also poorly understood—which is one reason the Food and Drug Administration has not approved tDCS for depression and other conditions.

At least one company, called foc.us, is selling tDCS devices online. “Ready for Neuro-Stimulation?” asks their site, which sells attractive blue and black devices for $199 and headsets with electrodes for $99. The company markets them mostly to gamers and people to wear when they exercise. Much work needs to be done, however, to prove that small electro-buzzes actually help a gamer better fend off orcs, aliens, and zombies.

What is most intriguing to my mind is what it means for who we are—or think we are —if a simple device and a few milli-amps of electricity can so easily alter our minds and behavior.

I had a firsthand example of how tDCS impacted my own brain when I participated in a tDCS experiment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Researchers led by neuroscientist Michael Koenigs attached two electrodes to my forehead and first bathed my frontal lobe with negatively charged current. This is supposed to excite my neurons and enhance my performance on various tasks, although I honestly felt only a slight bump.  

Then Koenigs switched to a positive current, which lessens neuronal activity. Within minutes I went into a state of low-key bliss, feeling like I had just taken a sauna or a hot tub. As I recounted in a story for MIT Technology Review, I didn’t feel any motivation to think, to write, or to do much of anything. Even after the electrodes were removed the effect lingered for a few minutes, causing me to start asking questions to the researchers, only to lack the motivation to finish them.

New Yorker writer Batuman was similarly tested in a lab in New Mexico, and lost her ability to speak when a researcher used tDCS on her right inferior frontal cortex. “It wasn’t like grasping for words; it was like no longer knowing what words were good for,” she wrote.

So how concerned should we be? Could tDCS be used to turn us into compliant sheep, like soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Or will tDCS merely become the latest pick-me-up when people are groggy—or another way to relax after work, like smoking weed or sipping a very cold martini?

While your mind is pondering this I’m going to gently zap my prefrontal cortex with positive current and kick back. And if I don’t get back to you—well, it’s not me that’s failing to respond. It’s my electrified and copacetic brain.

Correction: This piece initially referred to the amount of electricity used in tDCS as amps when it is in fact milli-amps.