Brain stimulation for the masses… (FOO ’06)

09/07/2006

There was one speaker at FOO this year that would literally have blown my brain away if he’d happened to have had his equipment with him. Ed Boyden talked about transcranial magnetic stimulation – basically how to use focused magnetic fields to stimulate sections of the brain and hence change behaviour. He talked about how you could use this kind of stimulation to improve mood and fight depression, to induce visual phenomena or reduce schizophrenic symptoms, hallucinations and dreams, speed up language processing, improve attention, break habits and improve creativity. Frankly, the whole territory sounded extraordinary. Some examples – a depression study found that stimulating parts of the brain for half an hour once a week massively lifted mood and that the effects lasted for around six weeks after the treatment had stopped. Another study found that by stimulating deep reward centres associated with addiction you could ween someone off smoking.

The whole session was sort of terrifyingly awesome and itself rather brain-melting. Apparently complications from this kind of treatment have been reduced to nearly zero after some safety rules were proposed in 1998. There have been over three and a half thousand papers written around the subject in clinical settings as well. It’s pretty much mainstream science. The only reasons – apparently – that it’s not more widespread is because of (1) the disjunction between neurologists and psychiatrists and (2) the cost and size of the units themselves.

So Ed Boyden’s proposal (along with some colleagues) is to create an open source community that could develop and apply safe brain stimulator technology. They’re currently using Sourceforge, following in the tracks of the Open EEG project. Apparently to construct a brain stimulator is surprisingly easy – you only need a reinforced coil, a high-capacity capacitor, a power supply, control circuitry for discharging the capacitors, hardware for holding and positioning the coil on the head, safety circuitry, optional measurement devices and some form of software and hardware combination to act as an interface. Absolutely fascinating. I shall expect to see pictures of Schulze and Webb experimenting with one shortly.

He ended by telling the story of one prominent thinker in this field who developed a wand that she could touch against a part of your head and stop you being able to talk. Apparently she used to roam around the laboratories doing this to people. She also apparently had her head shaved and tattooed with all the various areas of the brain and what direct stimulation to them (with a wand) could do to her. She has, apparently, since grown her hair. I’d love to meet her.