Brain stimulation hits the mainstream – commercial tDCS device available soon for $249

Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation is a technique that involves passing low-level electrical currents through parts of the brain. The effects of this are various, depending somewhat on the area being zapped, but it appears to change the baseline level of cortical excitability, and the effects can persist for several hours (or perhaps days) after a standard 20-minute session. People have been zapping themselves in the head pretty much since electricity was discovered, but tDCS in its modern form is a relatively new technique, and is thought to have potential for treating depression, stroke-recovery, and other clinical issues. It can also apparently lead to enhancements of normal functions (visual, motor, working memory, etc.) in healthy participants. The Guardian published an article this week on the effects of tDCS on maths ability, based on research which has been fairly widely criticised on Twitter.

This potential cognitive-enhancing effect is what’s caught the eye of a company called, who are now offering a commercial tDCS system, for use by anyone at home, for $249 (or £179 in the UK). Here it is:

The tDCS headset

The tDCS headset

So, it’s a small band with a battery at the back, and four electrodes at the front that sit over the forehead. are marketing this as a device for gamers to “Excite your prefrontal cortex and get the edge in online gaming.”

So – does it work? Possibly… But it almost certainly doesn’t do what the company says it does. For a start, if you want to “get the edge in online gaming” wouldn’t you want to stimulate your motor cortex (at the top of the head) and/or the visual cortex (at the back)? It’s unclear how stimulating the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) would give you an advantage in games. In fact, (as this article explains) placement of the electrodes over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is most often used for treatment of depression and chronic pain, so potentially these devices might have more of an effect on mood or emotions than any useful gaming-related functions. There is no information about effectiveness or effects on the  company website; the standard protocol of 1mA stimulation for five minutes is unlikely to do much beyond delivering a mild sensation on the scalp. The device can be configured to deliver up to 2mA (through a smartphone app), which may be enough to affect the brain.

Furthermore, there are important safety considerations for this kind of device. In fact, tDCS is such a recent technique that researchers are still in the process of working out what the safe limits actually are (in terms of both power delivered, and duration/frequency of stimulation). This article highlights the possibility that the electrodes can cause skin lesions, and tDCS can even potentially cause lesions in the brain  (admittedly in rats, and with currents a couple of orders of magnitude higher than used in humans). Still, potentially people could be using these systems repeatedly for long periods, and we have very little idea about what the effects of that might be.

If you’re still really intent on zapping your own brain to see if you can become an intellectual giant, or give yourself telekinetic powers or X-ray vision (hint: you won’t) then you could also build your own tDCS device using a 9V battery, some wire, a resistor and a couple of sponges, as described here. Total cost: about $5.


Passing electrical currents through the body can be fantastically dangerous. A (alternating) current as low as 10 MICRO-Amps can be enough to cause ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest, if passed directly across the heart,  current in the 10-20mA range causes severe muscular contractions, while 60-70 mA is usually fatal (source: Wikipedia).  Seriously, let’s leave passing electric currents through the body to the professionals, eh?

Many thanks to tDCS researcher Nick Davis for helpful discussions on Twitter related to this article.

36 responses to “Brain stimulation hits the mainstream – commercial tDCS device available soon for $249

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  2. I once stripped a live 220v AC wire with my teeth (having mixed up the fuses) . Nice stars, but still here. Granted theoretically you can stop the heart with the amperage stated, but to get it there is another thing. I witnessed someone cramped his hand shut on a 380v AC wire standing in a moist greenhouse for about 5 minutes before the right fuse was found. Besides burns he also still was alive and (fairly) well after.

    For the rest it’s indeed a silly contraption and not something i would advise to buy or cobble together.

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  10. Your amperage you are quoting is AC, as this device is DC. Also, the 10 micro amps is if you have INSERTED electrodes into the body. All electrical safety courses I have been through, the studies have shown its 50mA across the heart to cause fibrillation. But that has to be across the heart, as your skin is moist, the current goes through the path of least resistance, which would be the skin.
    That being said, there can be dangers, let people decide, but to compare passing an AC current directly through the heart to a DC current to the brain are two completely different things and should not be used to show if this is safe or unsafe.

  11. engineeredimmortality

    This is such a fantastically bad idea, and to think I was worried over all the efferent-only devices coming on the market.

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  13. I think you misread, I was stating that you are quoting data about AC, while this device is DC. To prove any sort of danger, you should provide evidence of the dangers of DC to the brain not AC to the heart.
    As this device is external, I would think MOST the current would pass through the skin of the forehead, and not through the brain. With that, I see this as being snake oil.

    • I was making a more general point about applying electrical currents to the body being (potentially) dangerous. You’re right of course that AC is more dangerous than DC, but DC can also cause issues (such as skin lesions and even tissue necrosis), particularly with long exposure. You’re also right that the device is probably pretty ineffective…

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  16. So I have had a medical grade one for 5 years now. I went down the path of attempting to self-cure my ADHD; I hate being medicated on amphetamines.

    So anyway. The theory and the other products on the market do work. My memory access when using the device is astounding, my focus is solid and the effects last through out the day. Sure there will be a cognitive bias here.. I did pay 4x this amount and I want it to work.

    However misguided the marketing for this is, don’t disregard the research so quickly.

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  19. Jim Davidson – Your post mentioned a “medical grade” device — as a person in a similar situation to the one you describe (ADHD, meds), I am curious about what type of device you have been using. I have a Fisher Wallace and have wondered if there were a more effective alternative available. Thanks.

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  22. Got electrocuted myself a few times from sticking my finger into a live bulb socket as a kid to getting a lightning shock that went up my exposed legs after it hit the ground nearby. Compared to a 2mA jolt of tDCS from those I got shocked at higher amperes, I could endure it for a good brain jolt so I would definitely try it out because the body has a way of adapting n healing itself after a stimulation.

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  27. I wholeheartedly agree the tDCS device is both improperly designed for its gamer-enhancing purpose and is unabashedly puerile to boot. Nor do I take issue with your advice against building a tDCS device at home using parts from Radio Shack; however, why do you then provide a link to a site providing those exact directions? Merely as a segue to the oh-so-clever warning – in large, boldface, all-capital letters – to readers that they’d be “fucking stupid” to follow those directions? What truly irks me is that you don’t stop your attack with the device or the DIY kits, but continue making spurious attacks against tDCS, citing such scholarly titans as Twitter, Wikipedia, or even “The Guardian” as references. There are numerous studies and reports which show tDCS can provide incredible advancements to patients with clinical depression, chronic pain, various types of neuropathy, tinnitus, et al., as well as boost brain function in people with Parkinson’s disease and other processes which diminish learning – e.g., aging, video gaming, or watching too much television.

  28. I have found this helps with my depression with the traditional setup Anode upper left forehead and cathode on right upper arm. I also built mine from scratch because it was just insane to pay a few grand for such a simple device. Cost $60 and I built one with a few fail safes such as resistors and CRDs to keep the Amperage from cooking my brain. However I would not recommend someone who does not know what they are doing try to build one of these devices you can cause serious harm to yourself if you are not careful.

    As for tcds in general there is to much research to say it doesn’t provide results but on the flip side we haven’t really seen the long term results either. Who know one day we may all go on a rampage O_o or turn into zombie! With jokes aside the long term effects have not been well researched from what I can find.

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