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Transcranial brain stimulation for everybody? I’ll choose the safe Luddite route.

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Journalist Tabitha Powledge, on the National Association of Science Writers “On science blogs” blog, writes:

Steven Novella has an alarmed and alarming post at Science-Based Medicine about Foc.us, a device for providing transcranial direct current stimulation to the brain.

For gamers. (“Overclock your brain!” “Make your synapses fire faster. Faster Processor, Faster Graphics, Faster Brain!”)

With Bluetooth. For iOS. Android on the way.

$249. Plus shipping.

Yikes.

The FDA, which has jurisdiction over medical devices, has declined to oversee this one. That’s because, Novella says, the agency has decreed that Foc.us isn’t a medical device; it’s being marketed as a performance enhancer.

Novella notes:

“tDCS is an interesting and potentially very useful treatment designed to alter brain activity, with potential applications to depression, motor function, cognitive function, and pain. Its application is complex, however, and researchers are still working out the effects of numerous parameters … In my opinion, tDCS is not ready for the over-the-counter market, nor the DIY community … While generally safe (although more safety data is needed), we still do not have enough information about the net effects of using this technology in various conditions for a long period of time.”

Nature has a recent editorial viewing the potential development of DIY brain stimulation, appropriately, with alarm. The piece is not open source, of course, but at MindBlog, Deric Bownds quotes generously.

Foc.us has also been touted on geek blogs, which seem, oddly, to accept without question the unsubstantiated claim that the device improves gaming performance. No skepticism, no safety concerns, no demand for data. In fact, at Ubergizmo, Edwin Kee seems worried only that Foc.us would put non-users at a competitive disadvantage. So we can look forward to a time when Foc.us is the, uh, focus of a novel performance-enhancer scandal analogous to drug use in sports.

At Engadget, Nicole Lee is slightly less credulous than Kee; she also got to try out the device briefly and reports on her 8-minute experience, which included burning and tingling sensations.

“We didn’t really feel our powers of concentration improve that much afterward, but it’s hard to say after such a limited time.”

My own reaction:  I’m glad I’m not a tech geek.  I didn’t know anything about this technology being marketed in this way.  I’ll stimulate my brain in some of the old-fashioned ways, thank you.  I’m not much into gaming, so really don’t care if I’m at a competitive disadvantage.  It can be safer to be a Luddite.

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