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Do-It-Yourself Deep Brain Stimulation—Good or Bad Idea?

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Do-It-Yourself Deep Brain Stimulation—Good or Bad Idea?

Apr 09, 2015

Deep brain stimulation is a therapy that has been proven to decrease symptoms of movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. It’s a therapy that some people are beginning to try—sometimes for other reasons—at home with batteries and adapters. While Dr. Paul House doesn’t endorse the DIY version, he says there is some research being done that may prove its efficacy. He warns about the risks and dangers for those who do decide to try it at home.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Medical news and research from University Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: So I understand that you can get these deep brain stimulation kits and use them at home. Is that correct?

Direct Transcranial Electrical Stimulation

Dr. House: Folks are not doing deep brain stimulation at home yet, but they're starting to do what we call a direct transcranial electrical stimulation. So, essentially, they go to Radio Shack, get a 9-volt battery, you get a small adapter and it can put a small electrical current in between two pads that people then tape to their head at various locations.

Interviewer: Okay. Is this a good idea? I don't know. It sounds a little Frankenstein to me.

Dr. House: That's a great question. I don't endorse that. I don't do that myself, but it's an emerging field about what this could possibly do, both good and bad.

Interviewer: Why are people doing that? What do they hope to gain out of hooking electricity up to their brain at home?

Dr. House: I think folks have been doing this ever since the battery was invented essentially, with the idea of trying to augment certain abilities at different times or treat depression, for example.

Stimulating the Brain with Electricity

Interviewer: All right. Is there any research that shows that this is okay to do at home or there is a benefit to doing it?

Dr. House: So this is where it gets complicated, of course. There is some research, there is a large amount of research using different amounts of electrical stimulation in the brain and even using some non-invasive stimulation. For example, using transcranial magnetic stimulation to differentially affect the brain.

Interviewer: Now, this something a doctor would do in his office

Dr. House: That's right, these are things that a doctor would do. And so there is emerging evidence about the utility of those procedures. But this low-current direct electrical stimulation that people are doing at home actually is now being formally evaluated in a few different instances. So there might be some benefits to it, but there is also some emerging literature that, for example, you can temporarily make your math abilities worse by putting the electrodes in the wrong location. So I wouldn't just try it willy-nilly at home yet.

Dangers of DIY Brain Stimulation

Interviewer: Are there dangers of doing it at home?

Dr. House: Yes. At the extreme end, if you're hooking up a car battery, sure, you can . . .

Interviewer: Okay. Are people doing that?

Dr. House: People will try lots of extremes. Of course, you could have burns just from the electrodes. You can induce seizures if things get severe enough. Sort of the good news is that there is not a wealth of reports of injuries of people doing this yet. I think with the Internet, there are some forums and that sort of thing where they suggest levels for people to start at that have been proven relatively safe. But, again, I wouldn't just go out and try it.

Interviewer: So I'm still back on even the beginning of this conversation, people go to Radio Shack and build these things. Are there actually commercially available brain stimulators like this that people are buying?

Dr. House: I don't know if there are formally commercially available one or if this is all you sort of buy the parts and put it together yourself.

Interviewer: So this is really a do it yourself sort of a thing?

Dr. House: Yes, this is a do it yourself, DIY it kind of movement, kind of issue.

Brain Stimulation at Home

Interviewer: As a physician, what is your opinion about brain stimulation at home and its rise of popularity?

Dr. House: It's a very interesting time because, from the scientific standpoint, I'm very interested to see if anything is learned by people doing this in large numbers. But, at a personal, individual level, I'm a bit concerned about people doing this at home.

Interviewer: So it sounds like you've been monitoring this. What are people saying this on these forums, like the benefits that they get?

Dr. House: Yeah. So there are reported benefits in everything from mood disorders, personality disorders, just enhanced cognition or enhanced creativity, for example. It's like anything, people report lots of positives and we don't really know if there are many negatives that aren't being reported yet.

Interviewer: And, of course, it's not a scientific method, rigorously . . . I don't have the words, but data is very empirical.

Dr. House: That's right. And everybody is their own best friend and worst enemy in that regard. Something good happens so you're going to blame it on the electrical stimulation and if something bad happens that was just fate.

Interviewer: So what's your final take on this whole thing?

Dr. House: I would not do this at home. That is my final take

Interviewer: All right. So if you're a parent and you have a kid that's doing this at home or you think it's helping, you might want to stop it
Dr. House: Yeah, that's right.

Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery

Interviewer: Could it be possible that an actual physician could help solve the problems that people are trying to cure with deep brain stimulation, or is it truly just I want to get smarter?

Dr. House: Sort of all of the above. Not to be too vague, but there are many of the conditions that people are trying to treat that do have very robust, well-established medical therapies that we might be able to help with. There are the other folks that are just trying to make themselves smarter. Right now, we don't have a pill for that.

Interviewer: Yeah, sure. So if they're trying to solve some other problem, does it frighten you that maybe they are not seeking out medical attention, that they are doing it at home?

Dr. House: Well, of course. Yeah. I think that there are limits to medical therapy, of course, but I think lots of time folks just don't really know what all is available. The interesting part is that this is getting a lot of press right now. Wired Magazine had a cover article about it; New York Times has an article about it. So there is certainly a lot more out there, but I think there are a lot more questions that need answers at this point.

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