Your optimized brain: Exploring the frontier of neurostimulation

From Hercules to Superman, humankind has always been fascinated by characters who defy the natural limits of the human body. Scientists haven’t yet figured out how to give us flight, but we know that increased cognition, strength and motor function are all possible using neurostimulation.

This technology, which carefully applies magnetic or electrical energy to the brain, can make us stronger, faster, smarter and more agile — if not quite superheroes. Neurostimulation products are finally reaching the consumer market, although the secrets of the trade are still relatively unknown outside of specialist circles.

Since ancient times we’ve known that electrical current can be healing and regenerative. The first-century Roman physician Scribonius Largus treated headaches with electric torpedo fish. Benjamin Franklin reportedly used an 18th-century neurostimulation device for pain relief. Other devices were developed over the next century that eventually led to deep brain stimulation (DBS) in the 1980s, which involves the implantation of tiny electrodes directly into the brain.

DBS generators delivered timed stimulation pulses that can successfully treat Parkinson’s disease, tremors and dystonia, a disease characterized by uncontrollable and often painful muscle spasms. They have now evolved to more sophisticated systems where the generator has the capability of sensing brain signals, analyzing and deciding whether to stimulate the brain.

Though safety and efficacy of implanted neurostimulation systems have been proven through rigorous FDA clinical trials, brain surgery is not appropriate for the majority of people who could see therapeutic benefits from the technology, so less invasive devices were developed. In transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a magnetic coil over the scalp induces an electrical current in the brain. TMS has been shown to be effective in treating migraines and major depressive disorder, but the device is cumbersome and can only be administered in a hospital by a trained professional.

From remembering names at a dinner party to becoming fluent in a new language, everyone wishes they could learn a little faster.

Enter tDCS, or transcranial direct current stimulation. Developed with the intent to treat a range of neuropsychiatric conditions, it applies a constant current to the surface of the scalp, priming neurons to fire more easily and produce a stronger, more synchronous signal. Because it doesn’t actually cause neurons to activate, tDCS is considered one of the safest types of non-invasive brain stimulation. It also has a relatively simple setup, and can be self-administered outside of the hospital setting.

You might be thinking — OK, this neurostimulation stuff sounds pretty cool. But is it just for medical applications? Where’s the part about turning into Superman?

tDCS generates a lot of excitement (and its own massive section on Reddit) because it has been shown to improve cognitive and motor performance in healthy brains, too. A study on learning and memory showed that participants using tDCS were able to master new piano chords 40 percent faster than the control group, showing accelerated motor skills learning. A month later, the subjects still showed the learning gains, meaning that the tDCS helped create durable motor memory.

tDCS has also been shown to significantly improve strength and force generation. Recent research in a group of crossfit athletes found that just two weeks of tDCS allowed the athletes to lift five percent more weight across all lower-body-focused sets during training. Other research found that athletes who paired tDCS with training achieved 12 percent gains in explosiveness.

Neurotech is now a hot market, with dozens of companies developing devices to modulate mood, generate energy or promote relaxation. Some target the sports industry, pairing motor cortex stimulation with athletic training to accelerate athletic performance. Others target mood centers by stimulating cranial nerves on the forehead and neck. Neurostimulation has also been strategically adopted by the military to enhance training in Special Ops.

Is consumer neurotech cutting-edge technology? It has been studied for decades, but only recently has there been consensus that it is a safe and effective treatment, and now there are easy ways for consumers to use it. Mood may be difficult to measure, but strength is easily quantified. A 12 percent gain in muscle power doesn’t come from imagination. As more adopters demonstrate the power of training the brain to train the body, neurostimulation has the potential to become a part of every professional athlete’s warm up, because they can’t afford to give up that edge.

And it’s not just for the pros. For weekend warriors who start to track accelerated gains in skill and strength after using neurostimulation, tDCS devices could become as commonplace as step counters.

The addressable market for neurostimulation could reach $10 billion. Sports, fitness and medicine are already huge industries, but the potential for improved learning touches every aspect of our lives. From remembering names at a dinner party to becoming fluent in a new language, everyone wishes they could learn a little faster.

Ultimately, one device could have the ability to stimulate any surface region of the cortex, unlocking potential in the human brain and body in an unprecedented way. What were once Herculean feats may become everyday human activities.