EEG provides a window into the functioning brain. By observing behavior and brain activity, neuroscience researchers can gain insight into how the two are correlated. Typically this involves monitoring EEG during well defined brain states or in cognitive tasks. EEG is also clinically used in the detection and characterization of epileptic seizures, brain lesions (from tumors, stroke or others), coma, monitoring in anesthesia or in the study of sleep, for example. Recently, we and other research groups have been developing EEG biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, with promising results. Our technologies, Enobio and Starstim now make it possible to easily record quality EEG in the lab, clinic or at home for any of these applications.
Patients can use neurofeedback to learn to modulate their EEG using audiovisual feedback of their brain activity – an approach shown to be effective in ADHD, for instance.
EEG provides a unique opportunity in terms of temporal resolution, wearability and cost compared to other neuroimaging techniques when it comes to potential Human Computer Interaction applications. The field of Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) is largely based on EEG for these reasons. Another field, known as Affective BCI, seeks to develop measures of the affective state of a user based on their EEG and other physiological measures.
Transcranial Current Stimulation (tCS or tES as it is also called, including tDCS, tACS and tRNS) is a non-invasive form of electrical neuromodulation. It is being intensely used in basic neuroscience and clinical research. Recent studies by several groups worldwide indicate that tCS holds significant potential in the treatment of chronic pain, stroke rehabilitation, depression, addiction and cognitive enhancement.
Scientists at the University of Oxford are experimenting with using electricity to enhance brain power.
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) works by sending weak electric currents through the scalp to stimulate the neurons in the brain.
Electrodes are placed on different parts of the head to boost or suppress different areas and improve concentration levels.
Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, the senior scientist at the University of Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology, who is leading the project, said his findings were promising.
"The research so far shows that when we use tDCS you can, in some cases, improve performance," he told this week's edition of Swipe.
Play video "What Does Brain Zapping Feel Like?"
Video: What Does Brain Zapping Feel Like? "It depends on several parameters like the type of the current that you deliver, where you put the electrodes on your head and the timing of the stimulation."
It is thought the technology could also be used to help people with ADHD and potentially treat depression or conditions like Parkinson's disease.
Dr Kadosh said the research so far showed that tDCS is risk free.
However, tests are currently only being carried out on a very narrow spectrum of the population, so there is still more research needed before the true impacts on health can be assessed.
It is currently not known how the stimulation would work on children, or whether or not there would be adverse affects if it was used in conjunction with drugs.
Despite such concerns over risks, there are some who have created their own tDCS devices at home because they wanted to test the technology for themselves.
Dirk Bruere, a London-based engineer, assembled his own simple kit using parts purchased from electronic stores.
It uses a nine-volt battery wired up to two electrodes, along with a couple of sponges to make contact with the scalp.
He said he had experienced a 5-10% enhancement in brain activity from using the device and that the effects were similar to that of modafinil, a drug used to treat tiredness in people with narcolepsy.
"It tends to quieten down the internal chatter when you're doing something you want to concentrate on," he said.
"You don't get a little voice which says 'Oh, I am feeling hungry, what am I going to have for dinner?' You just tend to concentrate a little bit better on the task."
When it comes to the risks involved, Mr Bruere believes his methods are safe.
He said: "The only real danger is if the current goes beyond a few milliamps and with a nine-volt battery that can't happen because there isn't enough voltage there to drive the current, even if all the electronics inside there have failed."
Home-made devices are not the only source of electric brain stimulation available for enthusiasts.
There is also a range of high-end products online, such as Foc.us, a headset that claims to boost concentration levels for gamers, and The Brain Stimulator, which sells itself as the smallest device of its kind.
Dr Hannah Maslen, an ethicist at the University of Oxford, said the market for such products needed to be monitored.
"We think direct-to-consumer devices should be regulated in the same way that medical devices are," she said.
"They are currently not regulated, simply because they do not make treatment claims. It isn't because we think they should be prohibited or restricted, per say, but that we think that consumers should be protected."
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