UTSA researchers warn about damaging effects of do-it-yourself brain stimulation

Tomas Benavides, Marcelo Marucho and Carlos Garciak

Tomas Benavidez, Marcelo Marucho and Carlos Garcia

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(June 18, 2015) -- Three UTSA College of Sciences researchers are warning the public about a new controversial self-help medical treatment called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).

The do-it-yourself at home brain stimulation is used by experimenters to improve memory and mathematical skills, assist with mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and ease chronic pain.

Through tDCS, a series of electrodes are placed on the scalp to send a weak electrical current to the brain. According to some studies, the current causes nerve cells to become more active. tDCS systems can be purchased online for as low as $250. Instructions are also available on the web for those who want to build a system using spare parts for about $40.

For the past four years, Marcelo Marucho, UTSA assistant professor of physics, Carlos Garcia, UTSA professor of chemistry and UTSA researcher Tomas Benavidez have studied the effect of electrical fields on the conformation and biological function of several different proteins including albumin, catalase and immunoglobulins. Proteins similar to these are found in brain neurons and other parts of the body.

To better understand the effects of current on the brain the researchers used only 0.8V , about half the amount found in a 1.5 volt battery. Recent research published in the American Chemical Society publication Langmuir provided evidence that even at such a low voltage, the current could cause significant changes in the conformation of the proteins tested in the laboratory.

“What is happening in neurons is key because we know information is sent through electrical signals and if you apply external fields, there might be some important interruption that affects the normal functionality of neurons,” said Marucho. “Maybe you could enhance memory and other activities in the short term, but maybe you are also affecting some other important functions of neurons in the long term. We don’t know–and I don’t think anybody knows the long term effects of these applications.”

Garcia says similar results have been seen in tests on the electrical stimulation of tissue. Proteins that are important to bone experience similar behavior.

“I think this is a Pandora’s box that people have opened,” said Garcia. “The machines that are on the market allow you to change voltage, frequency and time. Sometimes you do a series of pulses and then you stop and then go again. It is not only the frequency within the excitation wave, but also how many times per minute or hour that you can apply the stimulation to your brain.”

The researchers plan to apply for grants to perform experiments on a larger scale and gain a better understanding of the long-tem effects of tDCS.

Learn more about the research of Marcelo Marucho, Carlos Garcia and Tomas Benavidez.

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