tDCS for Enhanced Motor Learning, Reactions, Memory & More – An Introduction to Neurostimulation

By on July 11, 2016

tDCS (Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation) is a topic I’ve been very interested in for a while but that I hadn’t gotten around to experimenting with – largely because making a tDCS device is fiddly and buying one is expensive. That is until recently, when I was sent the ‘Omni Stimulator’ to try out and review. How handy! Also handy, is that the device is considerably more affordable than most options, meaning that more curious folk can give it a go themselves.

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In this post, I’ll be providing an overview of tDCS, how it works, whether it is safe and how you can get started. I’ll be discussing my own experiments on ambidexterity and on some interesting hardware that’s helping people to become better gamers and athletes (or claims to be). I’ll also be looking at and reviewing the Omni Stimulator itself and showing you how to get started should you want to follow suite. So strap in and let’s take a look at this stimulating subject…

What is tDCS?

tDCS is about the most ‘visual’ example of biohacking you’re likely to come across and has led to some very sci-fi looking photos doing the rounds online. Essentially, it involves strapping conductive pads to your head and then running a very small current (0.5mA-1mA) through them. The objective is to stimulate the neurons in order to provide a wealth of different benefits, depending on your placement of the pads. Stimulate the motor cortex and you can improve your motor learning skills (1), stimulate your occipital lobe and experience heightened visual reaction times (2), stimulate the right temporal lobe and gain ‘savant insight’ (3) etc.

What’s important to understand here though, is that tDCS is not about forcing the neurons to fire. That would be electro convulsion therapy, which is very dangerous and certainly NOT something you’d want to try at home. Rather, this is about priming the neurons – making them more inclined to fire and thereby increasing activity in the area, leading to greater plasticity for accelerated learning and permanent changes.

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In more technical vernacular, this means that the neurons are being ‘potentiated’, or having their resting membrane potential depolarized or hyperpolarized. This leads to heightened long term potentiation and a correlating increase in BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor) (4). In other words, because there is more activity and stronger signalling, connections are likely to be formed between neurons more quickly and concretely.

A good tDCS device will come with two pads which are positive and negative respectively. These are referred to as the ‘anode’ (positive) and ‘cathode’ (negative). It’s anodal stimulation that provides the positive charge and depolarizes the neurons, thereby increasing excitability. Cathodal stimulation has a suppressing effect but can be equally important in creating the desired effect. The various arrangements of these pads are referred to as ‘montages’ and by referring to research papers, it’s possible for someone who is new to tDCS to get their desired effects.

Interestingly, the effects of tDCS tend to last about half an hour after stimulation ends. The duration of a session is normally recommended to be between 10-20 minutes and many studies show that after about five sessions spread out over five weeks, you can expect to start seeing lasting changes. That is considerably more profound an effect that what you might expect from nootropics.

Uses: DARPA, Gaming and the Halo Sport

So why might you want to go about zapping your brain? Who is doing it?

DARPA, Grinders and Clinical Uses

Well, as mentioned there are a range of different effects you can achieve and these have all been heavily researched. tDCS is not new – it has been a popular topic in research for some time now and almost all studies show positive effects with relatively little risk. Gradually, this has led to something of an underground movement of biohackers and ‘grinders’ who are using the technique in a similar manner to nootropics; to increase mental clarity, focus, creativity, memory etc. In particular, tDCS is very popular for accelerating learning – and allegedly the US Army and DARPA use the technique to improve the skill of drone pilots and snipers. You can read about the DARPA research and find the montage here.

Skill acquisition with and without tDCS

Skill acquisition with and without tDCS

On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of people report using tDCS to treat depression with some success and researchers are looking into creating wireless implants that might provide this treatment on a more permanent basis.

Halo Sport

I’m more interested in some of the more obscure uses of tDCS and especially where those unusual uses are being marketed to a commercial audience. One interesting example is the Halo Sport device, a new kind of fitness wearable that looks like a pair of headphones but secretly contains some conductive pads on the inside situated right over the motor cortex. The argument is that this device can enable faster learning of the motor skills needed for squats, golf swings and an array of other techniques. It could be useful for martial artists learning Kata or it might even encourage greater muscle fiber recruitment to enhance max strength.

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This guy certainly looks like he’s learning great squat form…

The makers claim it can present improvements in ‘gains’ (and possible gainz) to the tune of around 12% – which sounds a little arbitrary to be honest but who knows. They claim they’re getting better power output from lifters, less ‘wobble’ in jumps and more and it is currently being quite widely covered by the media. You can read more at www.haloneuro.com, where the company cites several case studies suggesting that the technology works.

Foc.us

Then we have Foc.us, which is arguably the most well-known commercial example of tDCS yet. This is a headset aimed at competitive gamers and that claims to boost reaction times and accelerate learning. It’s a slickly made piece of technology but interestingly the montage used doesn’t seem to be based on anything I’ve seen used in studies for gaming-related benefits. Still though, it’s definitely an interesting example of a tDCS device going relatively ‘mainstream’ and it’s an application I find cool.

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The company has now also released more versions intended to improve lucid dreaming and a ‘V2’ of their main line product that is also being marketing for sports. Read more at www.foc.us.

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Thync

Thync is a strange looking gadget that kind of just glues to your forehead and definitely has a Star-Trek feel to it. Thyng works slightly differently by stimulating nerves in the head and neck to try and promote calm (‘good vibes’) or energy. Essentially, it’s like being able to gain a bit more control over your sympathetic nervous system – in theory. You can find that one at www.thync.com.

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In the future, we will all look like pratts

There’s even a project in the works that is intended to trigger flow states. It’s called ‘Flow State Engaged’ (www.flowstateengaged.com) but the site is down at the time of writing.

My Experiences

Right now I’m experimenting with tDCS using the Omni Stimulator which allows me to sample any placement I can find (unlike the devices mentioned above that use a ‘fixed’ position). I’ve yet to finish my experiments and I’ll be sharing my results on YouTube soon.

But one thing I already tried was seeing if I could use tDCS to improve my motor control. Specifically, I looked at my ability to write left handed before and after stimulating my motor cortex. With all these things, it’s incredibly difficult to rule out placebo but it did certainly seem to make my writing smoother and more controlled. Which is impressive, if that is really what was going on.

ambidexterity tdcs

And also on the plus side, I also didn’t melt my brain.

Next up: seeing if I can improve my visual reaction times and get better at Super Hexagon. I’m also going to see if I can create my own montage to improve motivation, perhaps by stimulating some structure in the salience network. Right now, I can’t find any studies or posts providing that kind of set-up. I’m also interested to try stimulating my orbital prefrontal cortex which is supposed to improve attention (5).

Is it Safe?

Right, so the big question now: is it safe?

That rather depends on who you ask of course and I’m not going to be the one to tell you to go ahead and start electrocuting your brain. What I can say though, is that there are no major side effects according to the research and in theory it should be unlikely that you’d experience anything more severe than a slight discomfort where the pads meet your scalp (which can be remedied by using a little saline solution). It’s not a good idea to use these devices for more than 10-20 minutes at a time, or to go higher than 2mA. If you stay within those parameters though, you should be safe.

Of course there is always the chance that you could make unwanted long-term changes to your brain if you were to stimulate the wrong area. There are some examples of this being possible, with certain montages leading to reduced reaction times etc. (6).

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What’s also slightly worrying is that using this technique on yourself is almost always going to be somewhat imprecise. We all have different sized heads and different shaped brains, with particular structures being larger or smaller from one person to the next. The best you can do when applying your anode and cathode at the moment is to look at a drawing and say ‘hmm, my motor cortex is about here’. Then there’s the fact that stimulating one area of the brain will almost always lead to stimulation of neighbouring regions.

BUT before you get to anxious about that, remember that tDCS is largely additive. Increasing the excitability of neurons leads to cortical growth and encourages plasticity. Conversely, suppressing activity is very unlikely to lead to neural pruning. In other words, brain areas won’t shrink. Of course there are still some potential downsides to growing areas of the brain but the other thing to remember is that permanent changes won’t set in overnight and they won’t be so profound as to cause major loss in any area right away. So you just need to proceed with caution – monitor the results of your own experiments and only if it seems beneficial, carry on with the program. Otherwise, try another set-up.

If your aim is to treat major depression, then you may take the stance that you don’t have anything to lose. If your aim is to improve learning, then you’re probably a biohacker and used to taking these sorts of measured risks. Me personally? I’ll be using it to conduct a range of experiments and depending on how it goes, I might try a few sessions for attention and motor learning. My current regime is working for me just fine and so I don’t need to tamper with it.

One more thing to keep in mind when being down on this sort of thing though, is that most of us drink alcohol. This is something we know causes both long term and short term damage with no positive outcome. So if you’re willing to do that, why is doing something that might offer a big boost in cognition considered risky?

How to Get Started + Reviewing the Omni Stimulator

So just to be clear, I like tDCS for the most part but I’m not necessarily advocating it for everyone. As always, proceed with caution and at your own risk. For those who do want to give it a shot though, here’s how you’d go about it…

First, you’re going to need yourself a tDCS device. Of course you could try neurostimulation with something like the Foc.us but this is really a false economy. The Foc.us is much more expensive and only allows for less flexible montage arrangements (the newer v2 allows you to move them around a bit but it is still relatively limited without taking it apart…). With a more ‘basic’ tDCS device (i.e. wires attached to pads), you can create whatever arrangement you like for a whole range of effects and experiments.

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Some people will go about doing this by making their own device from scratch. This could be dangerous however, unless you know what you’re doing. A good tDCS device should maintain a constant current and prevent voltage spikes with fuses and other safety measures – it’s not just a matter of plugging a battery.

So the recommended course of action is to find a tDCS device made by someone else who knows what they’re doing but that gives you all the freedom to make your own placements. I have the Omni Stimulator because it was sent to me for a review. I can recommend it though, for one simple reason: it’s very affordable. The Omni Stimulator costs just $119 and has all the features that all the more expensive devices have – it’s not uncommon to see these things for several hundred dollars which is just too expensive for such a basic piece of hardware.

The device is nicely made but still maintains that exciting ‘cyber punk’ feel that comes from biohacking. There’s a neat power light to indicate when it’s on, slits in the sponges for easy attachment and set-up is incredibly simple.

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The package also comes with several headbands, cables (red and black for easy differentiation) and instructions. You also get free access to two free pieces of software thrown in: ‘Ultimate Memory’ and ‘Confidence in Context’ (vocabulary training).

If you want to check out the Omni Stimulator, you can find it here. They’re a nice bunch of guys, so I’m happy to recommend this as a starting point for those interested in tDCS.

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Placements and Activity

Once you have your device, all you need to do is arrange the pads/sponges on the head and lubricate them just slightly with a saline solution (although a lot of people just use water). This is to encourage conductivity and prevent the minor irritation that can otherwise be caused by the pads against the skin.

From there, you just need to find the montage you want to use. www.TDCsPlacements.com has you covered here and contains a large selection of different set-ups with diagrams and references to the studies they’re based on as well. www.TotalTDCS.com is another good one with a few placements and studies not referenced at the former.

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Keep the setting on 1mA or lower to begin with and practice engaging in the given task while you apply the current – it’s important to try and use the area of the brain you’re trying to stimulate if you want to optimize the results. This is where that free software can come in handy.

And that’s it! Remember that the results last for about 30 minutes following use and try to make a note of how you feel and whether the montage is one you might want to repeat. For lots more information and discussion on the subject, check out biohack.me or www.Reddit.com/r/tdcs.

 

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.