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Published on: September 26, 2015
by Harvard Women’s Health watch:
Stimulating your brain to improve your memory and alertness doesn’t just mean spending an evening at the theater or reading a good book. These days, it can involve sitting with your head against a magnet or wearing electrodes that transmit a low-voltage current through your scalp to activate — or suppress — certain neurons in your brain.
“Brain stimulation, if used carefully and safety, looks promising, especially if combined with other therapies,” says Dr. Daniel Press, a neurologist with the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Dr. Press has used noninvasive brain stimulation for almost a decade.
Two types of brain stimulation are available today. Each can be performed in an hour or less in a doctor’s office.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses a magnetic field generated by a coil in a paddle that is held against the patient’s head to stimulate specific areas of the brain. The magnet is turned on and off rapidly, creating an effect that feels as though someone is tapping on your head. The magnet emits loud noises as it is turned on and off, which requires people undergoing TMS therapy to wear earplugs during each 40-minute session. Side effects are usually limited to headaches and ringing in the ears.
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) transmits a weak current from a 9-volt battery (the size used in a smoke detector) through electrodes on the forehead or scalp. People who undergo tDCS may feel their scalp tingle and hear a humming noise. Each session lasts about 20 minutes.
Both TMS and tDCS are being used — often in clinical trials or off-label—to improve memory and learning and to treat a host of conditions including depression, chronic pain, damage from stroke, and migraine headache with aura.
Although a number of tDCS devices are marketed directly to consumers to enhance alertness or aid relaxation at home, they aren’t cleared by the FDA for those purposes. So don’t try them on your own, Dr. Price advises. “We have a lot of safety concerns with the devices out there,” he says. “If the current is too high, it could cause burns or have other unknown consequences.” He’s also concerned that people may purchase them to try to treat symptoms at home that require medical attention.
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