Posted: Fri, March 15, 2013 | By: Special Guest
by Andrew J. Vladimirov
You are tired, anxious and stressed, and perhaps suffer from a mild headache. Instead of reaching for a pack from Boots, you put on a fashionable “smarthat” (a neat variation of an “electrocap” with a comfortable 10-20 scheme placement for both small electrodes and solenoids) or, perhaps, its lighter version - a “smart bandanna”. Your phone detects it and a secure wireless connection is instantly established. A Neurostimulator app opens. You select “remove anxiety”, “anti-headache” and “basic relaxation” options, press the button and continue with your business. In 10-15 minutes all these problems are gone. However, there is still much to do, and an important meeting is looming. So, you go to the “enhance” menu of the Neurostimulator and browse through the long list of options which include “thinking flexibility”, “increase calculus skills”, “creative imagination”, “lateral brainstorm”, “strategic genius”, “great write-up”, “silver tongue” and “cram before exam” amongst many others. There is even a separate night menu with functionality such as “increase memory consolidation while asleep”. You select the most appropriate options, press the button and carry on the meeting preparations. There are still 15 minutes to go, which is more than enough for the desired effects to kick in. If necessary, they can be monitored and adjusted via the separate neurofeedback menu, as the smarthat also provides limited EEG measurement capabilities. You may use a tablet or a laptop instead of the phone for that.
Your neighbour Jane is a trained neuroanalyst, an increasingly popular trade that combines depth psychology and a variety of advanced non-invasive neurostimulation means. Her machinery is more powerful and sophisticated than your average smartphone Neurostim. While you lie on her coach with the mindhelmet on, she can induce a highly detailed memories recall including memories of early childhood to go through as a therapist, or awake dormant mental abilities and skills you’ve never imagined to have with a flick of a switch. For instance, you can become a savant for the session time to solve some particularly hard problem and flip back to your normal state as you leave Jane’s office. Since she is licensed, some ethical modulation options are also at her disposal. For instance, if Jane suspects that you are lying and deceiving her, the mindhelmet can be used to reduce your ability to lie and you won’t even notice it. Sounds like a sci-fi? The bulk of necessary technologies is already there, and with enough effort the vision described can be realised in five years or so.
While the traditionally heated debate on the use and implications of “smart drugs” continues to rage on, investigation of biophysical neurostimulation methods aimed at human cognition enhancement is steadily gaining pace behind the traditional nootropic scene. While the currently available pharmacological means are still incapable of targeting specific brain areas related to the function to be enhanced, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), its combinations with transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) such as the anodal slow oscillation stimulation (tSOS), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) allow to do just that via elaborate placement of electrodes or solenoids.
Such methods could complement, amplify, or provide a safer alternative to the use of nootropics (not that, for example, Piracetam and numerous other ampakines except for a few experimental drugs have significant side effects!). For instance, with the exception of strong (~1 Tesla and above) field TMS that can induce muscle twitching with certain stimulation protocols in some test subjects, biophysical neurostimulation approaches are devoid of peripheral side effects. A drug can have metabolites with undesirable biological activity, and large individual or group differences in its kinetics and metabolism. It takes time for it to be fully excreted. If it is lipid soluble (and a compound that has to penetrate the blood-brain barrier will inevitably be!) and not easily biodegradable, elimination of such a drug from the body will take quite a while. With any electromagnetic stimulation method you simply press the “off” button and wait for the effect to wear off. Local skin irritation that can be caused by electrostimulation is easy to prevent by choosing the right electrodes and adjusting the current strength (DC) or voltage (AC). Earlobe electrodes don’t seem to cause any irritation at all at the voltage levels used, and there is no such issue when the stimulating agent is a pulsed magnetic field. While any subtle cognitive trade-offs are surely possible, and there is a recent publication providing an example of such a trade-off , dedicated study and careful design of a stimulation protocol can avoid such shortfalls while retaining the benefits. No doubt, in certain conditions such as epilepsy electromagnetic approaches to cognition enhancement are likely to be a contraindication. However, the very same methods focally applied in reverse (e.g. cathode application in tDCS, or an inhibitory stimulus train in TMS) can provide effective treatment means. In a nutshell, there are no fundamentally impassible rational obstacles for biophysical human cognition enhancement with a possible exception of close minds often operating within the framework of medieval ethics and/or Cartesian dualism. Now, with which neurostimulation protocol can we finally overcome that?
While strong field TMS which involves high power, high voltage equipment and thus has to be done with care will probably remain within the realm of research institutions and hospitals for a foreseeable time, this is not so with the other methods discussed. In fact, they provide a highly dynamic, enthralling sphere for what I would define as “electromagnetic biohacking” by knowledgeable enthusiasts. Just as numerous people experiment with nootropics on themselves, similar biophysical cognition enhancement experiments can be done (and are already under way) by garage scientists. Unless you own a pharmaceutical company, designing and testing an electromagnetic neurostimulation method and acquiring or building its implementation device is far more accessible than producing a novel nootropic drug. This opens some rather interesting opportunities for neurotech SME’s. Reproducing a method already known to work with a commercial, or even a custom built appliance could be more reliable than buying nootropics online from questionable sources, and fewer regulations to control distribution of such appliances are going to be in place. There is little doubt that apart from those already involved in biotech, electromagnetic biohacking will become exceedingly popular with electronics engineers/hackers around the world, just as there are numerous biofeedback acolytes in this milieu. Of course, a due care has to be exercised and potential risks properly gauged, but there is little out there to stop the “heroic enthusiast” (in the words of Giordano Bruno) from moving forward. Neither should the data obtained in such a way be ignored by the academic community without a thorough investigation.
There is already a start-up aiming at offering an affordable, easy-to-use tDCS kit which unfortunately seems to be quiet for a few months now. However, tDCS is technologically very simple and can be literally done with a 9V battery, a resistor and a pair of electrodes. The trick is to know functional neuroanatomy well enough to select the required electrodes placement locations while taking into account that an opposite, “inhibitory” effect will take place at the cathode. Stimulation time and current intensity will have to be adjusted so that the maximal beneficial effect is reached. Regular sessions can ensure that it is also long lasting. Typically, tDCS is applied during the learning task it is supposed to enhance. I expect it to be the first method of biophysical cognition enhancement to gain a widespread use in the not-so-distant future. A combination of tDCS and tDAC, or rather tRNS (transcranial random noise stimulation) is to follow. While pocket tDAC devices are already used (and prescribed) for anxiety, mild depression, sleep disturbances, chronic pain and cessation treatments, this method is significantly less researched in regard to its cognition enhancement potential as compared to tDCS and high power TMS. However, the potential is clearly there, and there are published studies indicating it. Note that all these methods do require a specialised device however portable it might be, the main reason being to provide sufficient current or voltage for long enough time to induce the desired effect(s). Such a device could be available as a programmable gadget which is software controlled from a smartphone, tablet, or any other computer. Unless you feed it from an external adaptor, the largest part of this gadget will be the battery. Of course, it will also require two, or in some cases more electrodes coated with conductive gel and placed on the skin above the stimulated locus. This might present a minor usability problem for an “application on the fly” as mentioned in the intro story here (if that locus is covered with long hair).
In contrast, weak field TMS input can be directly fed from any sound jack using a software function generator (in some cases a micro-amplifier may come handy). All you need is to plug suitable small solenoids in and place them above the stimulated area (direct skin contact is not necessary). I can easily kick up to 2 microTesla next to the solenoids powered with my Android phone - this is more than sufficient to induce (subjectively felt and EEG-measurable) neurostimulating effects with a protocol I’m currently testing. So, an easy-to-use hands-on technology is already there, but its potential for human cognition enhancement is unfortunately little explored. The major reason for it is the controversy surrounding the very approach itself, even though numerous studies clearly demonstrating biological effects of weak pulsed magnetic fields have been performed since 1960-es. This controversy primarily goes down to the so-called “kT problem” which is, in layman terms, the strength of such pulsed magnetic fields at the low frequencies applied being six or more orders of magnitude below the level necessary to induce biochemical response. Due to this problem some researchers are still firmly convinced that weak field TMS simply can not work, even though a bulk of publications proving the opposite is out there. Discussing this issue goes well beyond this brief overview. However, it should be mentioned that modern biophysics possess a variety of satisfactory kT problem solutions, many of which belong to the field of quantum rather than classical electrodynamics. At the same time, the kT problem underlines extreme safety of weak field TMS, as no thermal or magneto/ electrochemical effects that can present risks with the “traditional” high power TMS will ever take place. So far, I find weak field TMS the most promising, yet expect its widespread use to come the last after the rest of the biophysical cognition enhancement avenues discussed (as the exact physical mechanisms of its action are yet to be decisively determined and defined prior to effective neurostimulation protocols being designed). At the same time, both investigation and use of weak field TMS can have tremendous general impact due to its high relevance to the fundamental questions of cognition science such as the nature of the “binding factor” and even various electromagnetic theories of consciousness. In a meanwhile, its the time to take these solenoids off my left frontal and temporal lobes and turn the function generator off.