Risks and Benefits of Electrical Brain Stimulation

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Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, tends to spark a negative connotation. The controversial treatment is typically associated with mentally ill patients strapped to a stretcher, seizing violently, as an electric current courses through their brains. Contrary to popular belief, people who undergo ECT actually are sedated during the process and do not experience any pain or discomfort.

Doctors first began experimenting with ECT in the late 1930s as a means for treating a variety of psychiatric disorders that were not fully understood at the time. By the 1960s, ECT mostly was being used to combat severe depression; however, the advent of antidepressant drugs caused a major decline in the use of ECT. Today, it is performed only as a last resort when other treatments fail. While ECT may have benefits, it also comes with potential risks, the most serious being memory loss.

As medicine evolved, so did the medical applications of electricity. A growing number of people are now using an experimental form of electrical brain stimulation to help enhance cognitive function.

Known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the process involves attaching electrodes to the skull and targeting specific areas of the brain with calculated jolts of electricity.

“The brain is an electrical organ, so it makes sense to try to manipulate what’s going on in the brain with electricity,” explains neuroscientist Dr. Michael Weisend.

When performed by a trained professional, the noninvasive treatment is painless and relatively safe; however, studies have yet to be conducted on the long-term effects of electrical brain stimulation. The most common symptoms people experience during and after the procedure are tingling sensations, headaches, fatigue, vertigo, nausea and a metallic taste in the mouth.

Certain people have documented their experiences of performing tDCS on themselves using parts purchased at local electronic stores. Doctors strongly advise against this do-it-yourself, makeshift method, as it can cause appropriately shocking side effects, including scalp irritation, electrical burns and scarring.

Several studies suggest that tDCS could be beneficial in treating movement disorders and chronic pain. It is currently in clinical trials as a potential treatment for depression, PTSD, stroke, epilepsy and schizophrenia.