The idea of buzzing the brain has been around since electric sparks first flew. But neuro-stimulation, the act of applying strategic shocks to our gray matter, has more or less remained in labs and hospitals, not supplied to the masses for self-administration. In the past decade, however, we’ve seen more consumer products that purportedly let the average person regulate their moods via low-level impulses. Should we be shocking ourselves into happy and subdued states?
“The experience is … confusing,” wrote Jessica Silvester in a Science of Us article discussing Thync, a consumer neurostimulation device released earlier this year. “When it ends, I think I feel a kick of adrenaline — or was that the burning reality that I’ve just been electro-shocked?”
Thync zaps peripheral nerves on the wearer’s face, back and neck, in turn transmitting “vibes” to the brain. The $299 device, created by Harvard-trained neuroscientist Sumon Pal, promises to induce states of relaxation or excitement. How? The vibes stimulate the largest cranial nerve, called the trigeminal nerve, which transmits signals to brain regions involved in regulating such functions as mood, attention and decision-making.
Silvester was referring to the excitement or “hype” state in her above assessment. As for the her feelings towards Thync’s ability to induce relaxation? “My words feel very far away,” she wrote. “My neurons do not seem drunk so much as high as fuck.”
Thync is exactly the type of consciousness-hacking product that inspires some mix of intrigue and skepticism. While research does support indirect neuro-stimulation as moderately effective in regulating moods, particularly in treating depression, the device only relies on a single study and even that only backs up its “calm” promise.
Basically, Thync is a consumer version of trigeminal nerve stimulation, which can be administered via a forehead patch worn during sleep. The patch is attached to a regulator box, roughly the size of an iphone. At least one study touts TNS as potentially effective in treating moderate to severe depression. The FDA approved one TNS device, called Cephaly, for chronic pain. And a number of clinical trials touting TNS for other mental ails are underway. Hard proof of the pricey treatment’s mood-regulating capability, however, remains tenuous.
When it comes to buzzing the funk away, there’s better evidence for neurostimulation techniques that blast the brain directly, rather than by way of peripheral nerves. Some of these will likely make their way into consumer versions soon. Here are the five main types of direct neurostimulation used to level moods and treat mental disorders.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
We’ve all heard of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), the original direct brain stimulation technique invented in the 1930s to zap severely depressed people out of catatonia, and eventually to treat other psychiatric disorders. Shock therapy technically works by inducing short brain seizures.
As treatments go, it doesn’t have the best reputation. Sylvia Plath famously underwent ECT during a period of forced hospitalization, which she described as “[a] time of darkness, despair, and disillusion — so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be — symbolic death, and numb shock--then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration."
Still, ECT is safer and more effective than pop culture depictions suggest. And it’s improved considerably in the past eight decades. The shock therapy of today is believed to help somewhere between half and 80 percent of depressed patients go into remission, as the LA Times reported.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)
During VNS, which secured FDA approval in 2005, a device implanted under the neck skin, called a pulse generator, sends electrical pulses to the brain via the vagus nerve. Though originally developed to treat epilepsy, VNS appears to alter mood-regulating neurotransmitters. Because VNS requires surgical implantation, it’s riskier than shock therapy.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
This is a bit like ECT, but it’s non-invasive, uses a magnetic pulse rather than electric shock, and targets specific areas in the brain. To administer the treatment, doctors place an electromagnetic coil against the forehead, which allows shocks to pass through the skull and land at the desired region.
Magnet seizure therapy
Still fairly experimental, MST is like a hybrid of shock therapy and transcranial stimulation: Doctors use magnetic pulses to induce seizures in specific brain regions.
Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)
Finally, there’s this practice originally developed to treat tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease. DBS is the most experimental and invasive of the batch, as it requires brain surgery. Electrodes are implanted in the brain and controlled through a generator inside the chest cavity. At this point, clinical trials on DBS for depression and obsessive compulsive disorder look hopeful, but FDA approval is a long ways off.