Recently, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) or the non-invasive targeting of weak direct current (DC) to specific brain regions has received media attention. Among the scientific research community, tDCS has been a subject of great interest owing to its usage ease, relative inexpensiveness, and encouraging research results on a range of functions. Studies have seen tDCS accelerate learning, reduce symptoms of dementia, and improve attention in those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Understandably, a coinciding rise in the DIY community has also prompted an increase in consumer devices available for home use in hopes of mimicking tDCS’s potential neuroenhancement abilities.
This episode’s tracking will look at how to use different types of brain scans to understand the impact tDCS is having on the brain. In circumstances such as these, where the long term consequences are not known or understood, the tracking becomes even more important.
“What tDCS appears to do is to essentially turn the amplifier up, or the volume up, just a little bit on the brain areas that are receiving stimulation from the outside world. [Thus] you get a slightly larger reaction in the brain to stimuli that are coming in through endogenous pathways as a result of this exogenous tDCS stimulation.”
– Dr. Michael Weisend
Dr. Michael Weisend is a neuroscience pioneer in the research and broad range application of tDCS. He is an expert in the neurophysiological mechanisms of learning, cognition, and memory and has developed and advanced non-invasive brain stimulation strategies under neuroimaging guidance to enhance memory and other aspects of human performance. He has worked with the U.S. Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Institute for Health (NIH).
The show notes, biomarkers, and links to the apps, devices and labs and everything else mentioned are below. Enjoy the show and let me know what you think in the comments!
- In order to stimulate the brain to enhance performance, areas of the brain being stimulated should be matched to the places in the brain that are active (4:11).
- Through image subtraction, the essential difference between two brain states (tired vs. rested, inattentive vs. attentive, novice vs. expert) can be identified. Once identified, the goal is to target stimulation in order to aid in the transition from an undesirable brain state to a desirable state (5:54).
- Dr. Michael Weisend’s lab has mainly focused on learning. It will shortly start work with subjects with lingering symptoms from traumatic brain injuries (6:28).
- In the near future, tDCS will have an impact in depression (7:10).
- tDCS is inexpensive and could be a wearable for many (8:40).
- Because of advances in neuroimaging, current is able to be placed into critical brain structures for specific tasks (9:50).
- tDCS employs direct current (DC), which turns on and stays on at a steady rate; while machines found in physical therapy use alternating current (AC), which alternates current up and down (13:42).
- DC current, instead of directly causing an activity, is thought to “turn the amplifier up, or the volume up” on the areas in the brain that receive stimulation from the outside world (15:32).
- Using DC in tDCS allows for less variables to be involved (18:35).
- There are various theories on what different brain wave frequencies mean, and different frequencies are thought to do different things. For instance, sleep and waking have different wave activities at various cyclic points across a spectrum (19:55).
- Research has looked at a subject’s ability to find a target. Similar to the game Where’s Waldo, a subject looking for a specific individual would have to go through hours of imagery in order to complete the search, while simultaneously balancing essential components critical to the search. By studying multiple variables in conjunction with tDCS, Dr. Michael Weisend is able to see if, for a variable amount of time, subjects would make fewer errors (22:00).
- In the case of traumatic brain injury, the damage is subtle and hard to find via conventional scanning. A more specialized test, the diffusion tensor imaging MRI, can often reveal damage to the network (24:15).
- There are three places where to target stimulation: (1)where you sense (2)where you process and (3)where you act (27:45).
- When the brain is stimulated, it is more reactive to natural environmental stimuli. In theory, when the brain is in a more reactive state, there will be a greater number of active cells. This allows for additional opportunities for neuroplasticity to take place. In other words, because more cells are firing and more cells are wiring, a more rapid acquisition of information, able to be measured by changes in behavior, take place (29:30).
- MEG measures the magnetic energy produced by the brain, while EEG measures the electrical energy (33:00).
- Carefully using tDCS, Dr. Michael Weisend has doubled the rate of learning in a Where’s Waldo type task (39:00).
- Dr. Michael Weisend is biased for two reasons against the consumer devices: (1) devices currently out there do not take care of the electrode-skin interface; and (2) devices for home use have not been tested for safety or effectiveness (43:10).
- There is an active debate in the neuroscience community as to whether electrical brain stimulation is more like caffeine or more like a cigarette. There currently are no imaging studies looking at the effects of long term stimulation with tDCS (45:07).
- Could tDCS enhance performance? It could reduce the perceived effort. With the current level of understanding, however one might decrease performance instead (46:20).
- In the future, Dr. Michael Weisend sees combined therapies, or closed loop therapies, leading the field (52:39).
- White matter changes have been seen with tDCS; however, no grey matter changes have been observed (54:20).
- Dr. Michael Weisend uses the original Polar Loop to track steps on a routine basis to monitor and improve his health, longevity and performance. He also looks at the actigraphy for information about sleep, and downloads the information to analyze if he is reaching his goals.
- Dr. Michael Weisend’s biggest recommendation on using body data to improve your health, longevity and performance is to meditate a few minutes every morning. He recommends to think through your body, and mindfully self-check.
Dr. Michael Weisend
- Dr. Michael Weisend’s Bio Link
- Dr. Michael Weisend’s PubMed Link
- TEDx presentation: Dr. Michael Weisend’s TEDx presentation looking at viable applications of brain stimulation.
- Magnetic Fields: are assessed by magnetoencephalography (MEG). Neural activity in the brain results in measurable currents and magnetic fields. Magnetic fields produced by the brain are measured in the unit Telsa (T).
- Electrical Activity: is assessed by electroencephalogram (EEG). When enough concurrent electrical activity is generated by neurons firing, simple periodic waveforms are distinguishable. Rhythms generated by electrical activity are measured by their frequency and amplitude. Frequency is expressed in the unit Hertz (Hz) while amplitude is recorded in microvolts (μV).
Brain Imaging Devices
- Diffusion Tensor Imaging: a magnetic resonance imaging technique that captures how water travels along neurons in the brain. This test reveals damage to the neuronal network in traumatic brain injuries, which other scans may miss.
- Electroencephalography (EEG): a method to record the electrical activity of the brain resulting from current flows within the neurons of the brain.
- Functional MRI (fMRI): is a functional neuroimaging technique using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure spatial localization of brain activity through detection in associated changes in blood flow. Dr. Michael Weisend only sometimes uses fMRI, because it is an indirect measurement of brain activity.
- Magnetoencephalography (MEG): is a functional neuroimaging technique to map brain activity using magnetic signals. Dr. Michael Weisend prefers to use MEG compared to other techniques because magnetic fields are less distorted by tissue or bone and the MEG allows measurement of neurons turning on and off hundreds of times a second, thus allows ongoing measurement of activity.
- Functional MRI (fMRI): is a functional neuroimaging technique using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure spatial localization of brain activity through detection in associated changes in blood flow. Dr. Michael Weisend only sometimes uses fMRI, because it is an indirect measurement of brain activity.
- Structural MRI (MRI): provides a picture of the brain. The MRI signal generated is dependent on characteristics of different tissue types within the brain. For instance, gray matter has certain cellular properties different from white matter and these differences are visualized by contrasts expressed in a MRI image.
- Muse Headband: a consumer EEG device, used by Damien, to track different frequencies of brain waves.
- Thync: Dr. Michael Weisend looks forward to this company’s consumer electrical brain stimulation device. He hopes their “safety record is as stellar as they hope it will be”.
- Alpha Wave: the alpha rhythm is the most prominent EEG wave pattern of a brain that is awake but relaxed. When moving from lighter to deeper stages of sleep (prior to REM sleep) the pattern of alpha waves diminishes.
- Alternating Current (AC): current that alternates with time in voltage.
- Beta Wave: occurs at the highest frequency (Hz). These patterns are found when the brain is alert. Paradoxically, these rhythms also occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
- Closed-loop system: a system capable of diagnosing electrophysiological abnormalities and treating them promptly.
- Delta Wave: are low-frequency (only 1-4 Hz) that increase during sleep. When moving from lighter to deeper stages of sleep (prior to REM sleep) the pattern of delta waves increases.
- Direct Current (DC): flow of electric charge (current) in a constant direction.
- Gamma Wave: a wave pattern with activities in sensory processing.
- Grey Matter: areas of the brain containing unmyelinated neurons and other cells.
- Neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain’s neuron network and synapses to change.
- Sine wave: associated with an AC current. Dr. Michael Weisend describes it as “just a fancy word for something that goes up and down equally around zero amps, or zero volts”.
- White Matter: areas of the brain containing myelin coated axons.
The Tools & Tactics
- Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS): is a non-invasive targeting of weak direct current (DC) to specific brain regions. This low-intensity electrical current is passed at a constant rate from electrodes applied to the head. This type of brain stimulation induces currents able to regulate neuronal activity. The effects of tDCS can be modified by the size and polarity of electrodes used, intensity of current, and the period of stimulation.
- Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS): is non-invasive targeting of alternating current (AC). Dr. Weisend explains, this is different from DC, because waves or rhythms are entrained into the brain. For example, if stimulated with 10 Hz, the stimulation will have a frequency of going up and down 10 times per second. Once to the brain, this frequency will produce a sympathetic rhythm at 10 hertz, but may also enhanced in amplitude. Thus, with tACS, determining the appropriate frequency of AC for the task is an additional variable.
Other People, Books & Resources
- Luigi Galvani: is credited for the discovery of bioelectricity.
- Roi Cohen Kadosh Ph.D.: has studied tDCS to enhance mathematical ability and found data indicating that brain stimulation may enhance one type of math, while decreasing an individual’s ability to perform another type of math.
- Andrew McKinley Ph.D.: is a colleague of Dr. Michael Weisend, who has demonstrated that giving sleep-deprived individuals brain stimulation can have the same benefit as a cup of coffee.
- The Organization of Behavior: originally published in 1949, Donald Hebb first wrote the old (but still true) adage “cells that fire together, wire together” in this book.
- DIYtDCS website: a blog, described by Dr. Michael Weinstein, that stays up-to-date on literature and has conducted interviews with the top scientists in the tDCS field.
- ElectRX Program: a DARPA program aimed at identifying and studying biomarkers to monitor body and organ function. It will also look at what equipment is needed to monitor, and then interact with the system electrically to change its function.
- Nootropics: are a wide variety of both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical enhancers to improve one’s cognitive abilities. There is little known about their long term effects.
- Pavlov’s dogs: initially, a bell and food were presented together. After a few times, the bell alone would cause salivation. Thus, Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate to the sound of a bell in anticipation of food.
Full Interview Transcript
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Oh, you’re welcome. No problem. How can I help?
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: You can help with clarifying a lot of crazy stuff.
So, to define what you’ve been doing, it sounds like you’ve worked with a lot of different neuroimaging technologies in order to find out how to apply tDCS technologies to accelerate learning. Is that a fair summary of what you’ve been up to?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah. When I do work on the brain stimulation stuff, I always assume at the outset that I’m dumb, not that I’m smart. And so the way that you need to approach stimulating the brain in order to enhance performance is to match the places in the brain that are active with the places in the brain that are being stimulated in order to maximize the effect.
So we have used magnetoencephalography, that measures the magnetic fields that your brain generates when it becomes active. We have used EEG, which measures the electrical part of brain activity. And then we’ve also used structural and functional MRI. Structural MRI gives us a picture of the brain, and functional MRI gives us a picture of the brain that includes the places where you are using oxygen in order to support brain activity.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. Your goal is to see which parts of the brain are active, and trying to stimulate the same parts to kind of emphasize activity in those areas. Is that correct?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: That’s correct. So what we do is we examine the brain in two conditions. So, in the first condition, you want something that is not optimal. So it could be tired, it could be inattentive, it could be a novice.
And then we measure the brain in second conditions. So you could measure it when somebody is performing at expert level after a bunch of training, or you could perform the neuroimaging after a good night’s sleep, or you could image when somebody’s paying very good attention.
Then you take those two images and you subtract them. Once you subtract them, you have the essential difference between the two brain states. And for us, that is where we have targeted our brain stimulation. Is to find the difference between brain states, and try to target stimulation in order to aid in the transition from an undesirable brain state, to one that is more desirable.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. To give the audience a broad idea of what this could be applied to, I saw a TEDx presentation where you outlined, I think it was five different applications you saw as viable. I understand that not all of them have been attempted yet, potentially. But what were those, and which ones have you actually already attempted to, or done some work on, and it’s been effective?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: So, we have mainly focused on learning in my lab. We’ve also done some work with vigilance, and we’re about to start work with subjects who have traumatic brain injuries and lingering symptoms from those.
In the TEDx talk, I was trying to make things very understandable to the general population because, as a neuro nerd, we kind of talk in code sometimes, stuff that’s not understandable to everybody. Not because they’re less smart, it’s just that we have different vocabularies because we walk in different shoes every day.
One of the places where I think that tDCS will have an impact in the very near future is in depression. So there’s some very good work out of the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C., and out of several labs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who say that you can alleviate the effects of depression by stimulating the cortex between your ear and your eye, kind of on the top of your head. We call it dorsal lateral pre-frontal cortex.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: And it’s been pretty effective. So, some of the other areas you noted down, just for example, which you already kind of mentioned, was being tired, being stressed. Which of course is a huge thing these days, because who isn’t stressed, and we hear a lot about the health impacts of that.
So that’s an interesting thing. Slow; being slow, being forgetful, and you’ve mentioned sad and depression. And then even treatment of certain brain disorders, or diseases potentially.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yes.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So this is kind of looking at the future, and you’re TEDX presentation was aimed at the layman. I thought you did a great job, it was very understandable, even by me. So, yeah. I think you achieved that objective, and I encourage the listeners to go and check that out, before, potentially, you listen to this. It might be a good intro to get started with .
I thought what we’d now is take a little step back and talk about tDCS. What is tDCS? Where did it come from, how long has it been around? What’s kind of the basis for using this versus some other potentially similar technologies? Why are you focused on this one?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I can tell you why we’re mainly focused on it, and that’s because it’s inexpensive and it’s very light, and it could be put into a wearable for just about anybody.
So, where did it come from? Well, Luigi Galvani, back in the 1700s, used to shuffle around on the carpet and generate static electricity, and then touch the nerves that were attached to frog muscle in order to demonstrate that electricity caused the muscles to move. And there’s even some stories, some anecdotes, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, where electrical fish, electric eels, were touched to people’s heads in order to get rid of headaches.
So, we’re not talking about something new here. This has been around, it was used in the 1800s to try to cure paralysis. Some very good work was done on this in the 1960s that we rely on still today.
But there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of locations. I think primarily due to the fact that we have now abilities, based on neuroimaging, to look into the brain and actually do a really good job of trying to place current into critical brain structures for specific tasks, instead of kind of taking a guess at where those critical pieces of brain might be and placing electrodes in locations on the head that are based on lesions in literature.
So, the lesions in literature approach will get you so far, right? So, the lesions in literature approach more or less is the idea that if you take a piece of brain out, and a function stops so, for example, speech stops, or being able to move your hand stops then there’s this kind of fallacious idea that that function resides in that spot. And so people have turned that on its head and said, well if function resides in that spot, and we put electricity into that spot, we should change the function of moment, or speech, or what have you.
But there’s a problem with that, and if you want to think about this in a kind of a colloquial way, let’s talk about where right turn is in a car. Right? Is it in the driver’s brain? Is it in the driver’s hands? Is it in the steering wheel, is it in the steering linkage, is it in the front wheels? Right, where exactly is it?
And so, in that case, that’s a lot like the brain. Because in order for you to speak, there has to be a whole bunch of ares working together. And in order for you to move your hand, there’s a whole bunch of areas that are working together. Function does not reside in one single spot in the brain. Behavior is supported by a network of areas that work together.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s very interesting. So are you talking there about the connections between, say, the hand and the brain. And these days we also hear about the gut brain access, and the relationship between the gut and the brain.
Of course, you’re focused on specific areas of the brain, but do you think one day that we would be looking at stimulating other parts in tandem? I understand that you’re not stimulating the hand and the brain at the same time in your work, you’re focusing on the brain. So, could you sort of extrapolate a little, that idea?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Exactly what you are talking about now, where you stimulate in the periphery in order to influence the central nervous system or influence the connection between the brain and the central nervous system is right now the topic of a DARP request for grant proposals.
So it’s of the Electrx, E-L-E-C-T-R-X, program, or electrixs program, and they’re looking for a couple of things. One, what are the biomarkers that you might monitor in order to know that something’s amiss in a system. And two, what are the pieces of equipment or the gizmos that you might use to monitor, and then interact with the system electrically in order to change function.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I just thought of an analogy for people at home, because they’ve probably seen some of the info commercials on TV. You know the old electricity stimulated ab belts people would wear to get abs, Six Pack Abs machines. I’m not sure if they every worked, but is that exactly the same technology?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: It’s not the same exact technology. So tDCS is something that turns on and stays on at a steady rate. So if we say two milliamps, it comes on slowly, comes up to two milliamps, stays at two milliamps for a period of time, and then ramps back down to zero. The ab machines or, if you go to PT they can do this too, it is physical therapy they can stimulate your muscles in order to make them move, to break up spams and stuff like this.
And those machines work on an AC current. Or, an AC current is one that alternates up and down. It’s like the electricity that comes out of your wall socket, but at a very low, low, low level. Right? You wouldn’t want to try this by sticking wires into a wall socket, you’d kill yourself. And that AC current can ramp up quickly and ramp down quickly, and it’s that ramp up quickly and ramp down quickly that causes the contraction of the muscles.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So do muscles work rather than an on off basis, they work on an AC because it goes negative, positive.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah. What you’re essentially doing there is you’re causing, the AC current causes the release of neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction. So at the place where the nerves come into the muscle, there’s a gap between the end of the nerve and the beginning of the muscle, and there’s a substance that travels across that gap to cause the muscle to contract.
It’s called acetylcholine. It’s what’s called a neurotransmitter. And so the electricity, the AC current simply causes that acetylcholine to be released, and the muscle to contract based on the same mechanism that it would if impulses came down the nerve.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, great. Thank you for the clarification. Now coming back to the brain.
So we’re using tDCS, which is a direct current. And roughly how much time do you typically apply it for, or does it really vary according to what you’re doing? And what is the reasoning for a direct versus an AC? It’s a constant stimulation versus intermittent stimulation of the brain. What’s the reasoning behind that?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: There are people who use AC currents on the brain. Those also cause changes in behavior. We use DC current in this case, because the way we think tDCS works is that instead of directly causing activity in the brain, what tDCS appears to do is to essentially turn the amplifier up, or the volume up, just a little bit on the brain areas that are receiving stimulation from the outside world.
So, when I think about this, I think about two terms, right. One is endogenous stimulation, which means from a natural pathway inside, and exogenous stimulation, which is from outside and maybe not through a natural pathway. So, if you take tDCS, it is an exogenous type of stimulation where you put it on the head. A whole bunch of electricity goes through the scalp, and a little tiny bit of it gets through the skull, and into the brain.
And that little tiny bit causes the neurons, we think, to be slightly more reactive when there are stimuli coming in through endogenous pathways, like the eyes and the ears, and smell, and etc, etc. Touch, right. So, in that case, you get a slightly larger reaction in the brain to stimuli that are coming in through endogenous pathways as a result of this exogenous tDCS stimulation.
With an AC current, you’re doing something different. So the AC current, essentially, if you put in a sine wave a sine wave is just a fancy word for something that goes up and down equally around zero amps, or zero volts then what you do is you’ve entrained rhythms in the brain.
So if the stimulation is at 10 hertz, it means the stimulation is going up and down 10 times per second, then you will, in the brain, get a sympathetic rhythm at 10 hertz, which is either enhanced in amplitude or generated de novo from whole [unclear, caw 17:33]. And so in that way, you have to with TACS, which is the alternating current, you have to know first that you’re getting electricity into the right areas, but then you also have to know that 10 hertz is important for your task. Or 12 hertz, or 40 hertz, or whatever you’re going to put in.
So, again, we go back to this place where I assume I’m dumb, and what I do is I put in the simplest thing I can think of and in this case it was DC current that would enhance a reaction to naturally incurring stimuli in the environment, without the baggage of having to know now not only where to put it, but also what frequency is important for the task. So it just starts getting more and more complicated as you start adding in things like, oscillations, random noise. There’s a variety of things you can add in.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Basically, it makes more sense to focus on tDCS because there’s less variables involved at this stage. And it sounds like we’re still on the cutting edge, and to introduce more variables is just going to make the task that much more difficult to actually use effectively, or to make research start paying off, in terms of coming up with answers. Is that the theory?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah, that’s it exactly. I prefer to keep it as simple as possible, and try to work out the simple stuff before we, walk before you can run.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Exactly. Great, great. I think people have also heard of different frequencies of waves in the brain. I own a Muse, this device EEG consumer device you’ve probably heard of. And that tracks some of the different frequencies, alpha, beta, delta. Delta waves in the brain. So we’re just talking about some frequencies.
Are they related, because it sounds like when you wear these EEG devices that it’s tracking the whole brain, right? It’s like we’re having the same frequency of waves for our whole brain. But it sounded like, when you were just talking about this, that we can have different waves and different areas on the brain, and it’s actually a bit more complex. So what is the kind of model that exists today?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Different frequencies are thought to do different things, and it’s most clearly seen in sleep. So, in waking, you have beta activity, alpha activity, gamma activity, all across the spectrum. But when you go into sleep, you go through periods where you drop out lots and lots of the other frequencies, and you get delta, which is one to four hertz. And then when you dream, when most people dream, you come back up and your brain almost looks awake again. And then you drop into this delta.
So, what do the difference frequencies mean? Well there’s all kinds of theories out there, but I would say one that I think has really kind of held water for a while is that the oscillations are the way that different pieces of brain talk to one another.
Okay, so if you are engaging this network that we talked about before, like left turn in a car, you have to have oscillations that are complimentary in pieces of that network that are talking to one another. And it might not be that they’re the exact same frequency, but it’s important that they happen together.
So you might see alpha, or beta activity in the occipital lobe when you’re looking through an image, and that might elicit gamma activity in the frontal lobe, or one of the temporal lobes. But they are temporally related, and they are related by what’s called phase, where when the cycle of one is going up the cycles of the others are in a specific relationship to that. They can also be going up, or it could be driving that phase down.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay. It sounds pretty complex.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Oh, it’s the most sophisticated math in neuroscience right now, is trying to figure this out.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay, right. So, again, focusing on just stimulation versus non-stimulation, versus all of the different frequencies. You used a variety of neuroimaging technologies to try and target which areas were effective for which tasks. Which tasks have you been looking at? Like which kind of case studies, where have you worked on, to give people an idea of what kind of applications in learning you’ve been looking at?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: We have done a lot of work for the US Air Force, and the US Air Force has images to look through for targets of interest that you might want to track, you might want to forget about. Whatever that’s going on on that day.
So, in order to think about, what is that game really about, it’s really like Where’s Waldo. Right? So let’s say that you are looking for a specific individual. If you’re looking for a specific individual, you’ve got to go through hours, and hours, and hours of imagery in order to complete that search. So, the things that are critical to completing that search are vigilance, knowing what the target looks like, knowing what the target looks like when it might be disguised.
So, we’ve looked at all that kinds of stuff to see if we can get people to, essentially, play the Where’s Waldo game for a variable period of time, and in that period of time make fewer errors, in terms of either losing the target or mis-identifying a target, or kind of falling off the wagon in terms of attention. All of those things are what we’ve looked at primarily.
We’re working now with people who have traumatic brain injury, and in this case we’re looking at veterans who have traumatic brain injury. In those veterans with traumatic brain injury they report lingering symptoms in terms of memory, attention. And that’s why we think we can have an effect, is because we can, in a healthy person, we can have the effect on memory and attention.
And so we’re now going to try to push that stuff out to people who really need it. To get back to a space where they can function in society as a healthy person, instead of trying to enhance the abilities of already healthy people.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So when you’re talking about injuries, is it structural damage, or is this post-traumatic stress disorder, or is it a kind of variety of different symptoms reports of which aren’t necessarily structural? So there’s not like bits of the brain actually missing or atrophied, or is there a range of different conditions?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: So it’s a range of different conditions. It’s almost always the case that somebody who has lingering symptoms after traumatic brain injury has at least damage that is subtle. It might not be visible on conventional CT scanning, CAT scanning, or conventional MRI, but if you do some highly detailed and highly specialized scans, it is often noticeable. And one of those techniques in MRI is called diffusion tensor imaging.
The brain is connected, one end to the other and side to side, by fluid filled tubes called axons. And those axons carry electricity from one piece of the brain to the other in this network, like we talked about for right turning a car. So, you can imagine that your car wouldn’t turn very well if you pulled part of the linkage apart that moves the front wheel. So you can turn the wheel all you want, but the front wheels might not respond.
So in people with traumatic brain injury who have lingering symptoms, a specialized test called diffusion tensor imaging can often reveal that damage to the network, which is not obvious in more conventional, easily done, turn-key or canned scans that you would get at your local hospital.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Let’s talk about the different ways you’re quantifying changes here. Just to give people [an idea].
Are we talking about functional versus structural? Is the important thing you see as the functional aspect? Because the structural technologies I think most people are used to are the CT scan, the MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, which basically gives you a map of the structure of the brain.
If you add a bit of contrast, it will come up with some of the white matter, which is still basically the structure of the brain. It doesn’t necessarily say which bits are active versus which bits are non active. And in technological language, they say functional in terms of trying to understand how the brain’s actually working, whether it’s active or non-active.
So is most of the work you’re doing looking at understanding whether it’s active or non-active, or are you also looking at the structural changes? Because another thing that comes into this is plasticity, and neuroplasticity, which has over the last ten years has become something. There’s a few books about this, and it’s been quite hopeful in terms of saying, if we do get structural damage then we have this ability to regrow, redevelop, and overtime we can develop our brains. And so it kind of gives us this optimistic look of the brain that we can kind of adapt and grow it the way we want to.
I guess the other question behind this is also when you’re stimulating it, are you actually affecting neuroplasticity, and trying to emphasize an area of the brain to actually grow structurally? So that’s a lot of questions all wrapped up into one. I don’t know if you can remember all of them.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: There were some tricky questions in there. But let’s start by the difference between structure and function.
So, structure is looking at your TV, or computer monitor. There’s a nice space there, and the reason that light appears in the specific places it does is because of the way it’s wired internally. But without function, the picture is black. Right? You don’t have a picture.
When we look at function what we’re doing is we’re looking at the places. Not only locations, which are defined anatomically, but by when those little pixels in the brain, the areas in the brain that are analogous to the pixels, turn on and off as a result of either being stimulated, or sensing information in the environment, processing that information, and then acting upon that information.
So, those are the three places where we can actually target stimulation. Where you sense, where you process, and where you act. You might think, and it is the case, that if we were going to try to influence behavior, we could pick one of those things to look at.
So you might try to say, let’s make people more sensitive to differences in light and dark. Maybe that will help them play Where’s Waldo. Or what’s more critical is pressing a button fast. So, then you might look at the place where people act. Or you might say, what’s most important is how you interpret the information. And so then you might target stimulation to look at where it is being processed in the brain.
So now if we move on to one of the next questions, which, I’m sorry, I forgot. So we were talking about…
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I threw in plasticity in there as well.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Neuroplasticity is a fancy term for something that is very simple. And that is a change in the brain that sticks. No more complicated than that. And we call changes in the brain that stick, we call that learning. So neuroplasticity is a way that the brain captures information and holds it to change behavior.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: With neuroplasticity, how does that work? So let’s think about how that works first. So there’s an old adage, and as far as we know it’s still true, but it was first written about in 1949 in a book by Donald Hebb. He said this in very fancy terms, but what it boils down to is cells that fire together, wire together. Okay?
So if you think about Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov’s dog learned to salivate to the sound of a bell in anticipation of food being given to it. So how does that work? Well it only works, actually, if the bell and the food are presented together.
So once you have the bell and the food presented together a few times, then what you have is the bell starts to cause salivation just like the food caused salivation. And it’s when those two things are presented together the brain changes its wiring to connect them, so that you can now change behavior.
So what the heck does tDCS have to do with any of this, right? So now think about what we talked about before, where we said when you stimulate the brain you make it more reactive to the natural environmental stimuli. So, when it’s more reactive you have a greater number, at least in theory, a greater number of cells that are active. And you have additional opportunities for this plasticity to take place, because more cells firing, more cells wiring, and a more rapid acquisition of information that you can measure by changing behavior.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So it’s basically when the brain’s operating, you’re encouraging one area to take the lead versus another.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to summarize it.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Alright.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: All that fancy crap, why is it there.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: We made it. Okay. Well thanks for all these clarifications, it’s great. So what technologies have you played around with, and which do you think are the best for what you’re trying to achieve here?
The one that I saw mentioned one time was the functional MRI. Another one was the MEG, which is something I hadn’t heard of before, actually. EEG, I saw as well, which I feel like was an older technology and not as accurate, but I don’t know. That could be just like branding and marketing, and it’s got into my head, and it’s firing the neurons in that kind of area, so I feel that way.
So when you’re looking at these technologies, which do you feel are the most useful for your work at the moment, and is that going to develop soon into different ways? Are you going to be using different, more accurate technologies which is going to be able to further this kind of work?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: So I prefer magnetoencephalography to the other techniques for a couple of reasons. So, magnetoencephalography measures the magnetic energy that your brain generates. When you think about electrical activity, electrical activity is always accompanied by magnetism.
You can use your right hand to visualize this. If you point with your thumb at something, and imagine there’s an electric current running along your thumb on your right hand, then there’s always a magnetic field that wraps around any current that would travel in the direction if your thumb. There’s always a magnetic field that wraps around it in the direction that your fingers naturally curl on your right hand.
So, with EEG, what we’re measuring is that electrical current that’s running along your thumb. With MEG, what we’re measuring is that magnetic field that is wrapping around your thumb. So, why would we do that the technology’s way more expensive and way more difficult to maintain?
The reason we do that is because your scalp and skull are transparent to magnetic fields, but your scalp and skull are opaque, or mostly opaque, to electrical energy. Okay? So anything you see with EEG, is kind of blurry and smeared out. But the things you see with MEG are a very clear reflection of what’s going on in the brain.
But it comes with a cost. Everything, there’s no free lunch, everything comes with a cost. So, MEG has a lot more information, and as long as you take the time to figure that out then you can learn additional things about the brain.
But, in some cases it’s too much information. It’s one piece of brain talking on top of another piece of brain, on top of another piece of brain. And it’s very difficult to sort out.
So EEG gives you kind of an oversimplified picture, MEG gives you an overly detailed picture, and there’s no Goldilocks area there, where this one’s just right. You lay down your bets and you go with one of the other.
I err on the side, again, that I’m dumb. And so I want the maximum information I can get to try to learn the most. And so that’s why I prefer MEG.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. And, as you said, it’s a lot more expensive. And it’s newer.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: You haven’t mentioned fMRI. I’m guessing that you’re not using that so much. And fMRI is very different, right? It’s about blood flow, and blood oxygenation levels. That obviously is a very different approach to tracking function.
So do you say that is relevant, because obviously in the press these days functional MRIs are the big thing in terms of behaviors, and pretty much all the brain studies that are reported these days contain these fMRIs. So how do you look at that, and why don’t you use those? It seems like you don’t use those.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah, functional MRI I use a little bit, not a lot. But I’ll tell you, I have a couple of issues with MEG, oh, no sorry, with fMRI. One is it’s not a direct measure of neural activity, it’s an indirect measure of neural activity.
Having said that, it also has very good spatial localization of an activity. Now superior to MEG or EEG. If what you’re about is all spatial, then you can’t get better than fMRI.
What I argue is that not only is the spatial location of stuff important, we also get the on. and the off, and the frequency, and all that stuff with MEG and EEG. So I just feel there’s more information there, and I prefer them for that reason.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So basically, blood flow moves slower than electricity activation. So you’re looking at the thing that’s moving the fastest, and as you’re saying, it’s the first measure, rather than a secondary proxy.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Neurons can turn on and off hundreds of times a second. And so, MEG and EEG can both measure that, but [with] fMRI the maximum time resolution is on the order of seconds.
So, if you use the analogy of the ocean, if you take a picture and you see the waves coming in, that’s MEG, EEG. If you took a film and then averaged it all together so that there were no waves, right, all you got was the general level of the water. That’s fMRI.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So all of these technologies we’re talking about, EEG is used in the consumer world today, but the fMRI and MEG aren’t because they’re just damn expensive. So they’re not used for diagnostics as yet.
In terms of that, how applicable are they? Because we do this research with them. Is the research you find directly applicable to everyone? So if you analyze someone in the military, you analyze his brain. And we were just talking about plasticity, and when they talk about plasticity they often talk about how sometimes different areas of the brain can be doing the same thing.
So I was wondering, do you feel like everyone’s brain is this kind of a standard you can rely on? If you establish a pattern by analyzing 10 people in the military, can you now say that if you want to work on that same activity, that same task, and improve the learning, could you now apply that pattern you’ve established to anyone in the world? Or are there limitations to how broad this can be applied?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Well this can depend on your task, right? So if you’re interested in where is the piece of brain that moves the finger? That’s pretty standard across different people. If you are interested in languages, like reading languages, well that’s pretty uniform in the Western hemisphere, but in the Eastern hemisphere, where characters are more prevalent, then it’s a little less like Western hemisphere style.
If you are now interested in what makes this person more reactive to, more anxious than the next person, now we’re talking about each individual person learning about each individual person. So, it really kind of depends on your question what level of detail you need to go into, and the analysis.
For us, we’ve tried to focus on things that are on the level of language, where we can get good generalization across people of similar cultural background.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. Well, let’s talk about some of the specific results you’ve seen, because we’ve talked a lot about all the modalities.
Now what’s the kind of rewards you’ve seen for this activity? What kind of improvements have you seen compared to controls? What benefits do you basically see in this technology that you’ve actually kind of proven and carried out case studies and research, and you got the data behind them?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: So we’ve replicated several times that we can, by careful placement of tDCS and implementation in a specific task, we can double the rate of learning in a Where’s Waldo type task.
Another thing; a very good colleague of mine, who works at the Air Force Base, Andrew McKinley, has recently demonstrated that you can give people who are sleep deprived the exact same benefit as a cup of coffee by doing brain stimulation. One of the interesting things about that is that and I alluded to this in my TEDx talk you don’t have all the effects on the liver and the kidneys and the lungs and the brain, with brain stimulation that you might have by taking a drug to influence being tired.
So, when you drink a cup of coffee and you are benefiting from the wakefulness as provided by the caffeine, there’s as much caffeine in your elbow as there is in your brain. And what we do with tDCS, really, is take the elbow out of the equation, and direct the stimulation at the organ that is most responsible for behavior.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s great, because I mean, caffeine is a great example there. I myself am a bit tired I’m jet-lagged from travel so I’ve had a couple of coffees today. And I also have documented adrenal fatigue, so it’s not the best idea for me.
But for me, if it was proven that I could use a tDCS unit at the moment while I’m fixing my adrenals, it probably would be a pretty wise idea, because then I could quit coffee and use tDCS when I had to get some work done.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Right.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: And so, if used, is it applicable for people at home? Can they have a look at the research and use a home tDCS unit and actually apply that today? Or have we got still a little way to go in terms of, let’s just take that specific application right there.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Well I would say tDCS at present is a very nice, kind of cute, kind of interesting, laboratory trick that under specific controlled conditions, we can demonstrate it has an effect. If we select out lots of variants in the studies.
So, for example, if somebody hasn’t eaten normally, we reschedule them. Or if somebody had a big night out last night, and they’re a little hungover, we reschedule them. If somebody says they have some either brain disease or are taking some drug that might influence the brain, we don’t allow them into the study. So when we do our studies, we try to operate in as pure a space as possible.
And I don’t think there is a single example yet of the application of tDCS or any other brain stimulation technology in a population that takes all comers, regardless of the issues that they bring through the door, whether it be, you know, addiction, or ADHD, or tiredness, or a hangover. I don’t think there’s a single study that takes all comers and still demonstrates a good effect.
That’s important for the DIY market and consumer market because it has to have its effect when anybody comes through the door. If you buy one and it doesn’t have an effect, you’re going to be upset. That’s a hurdle that has to be jumped before we’re ready for the consumer market, I think.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: There’s a DIY tDCS movement that started up just recently, right? I actually heard you talk on one of their podcasts. Versus, before that, there’s basically a few companies selling units.
What is the difference between those? Is DIY more about constructing your own units and kind of figuring out the positioning, versus in the units that were bought before that were basically set up for the consumer market, and so they’ve been pre-established by some companies and with a better research backing?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah, there are a couple of companies through which you can buy tDCS units now. There’s not a single company who has a validated device for their technology, that doesn’t exist. I mean, these are literally people I’m biased here, so you take into account that I’m biased.
And I’m biased for two reasons. First reason; the devices that are out there don’t take care of the electrode-skin interface. I have the scars on my arm to prove that you can do this in a dumb way and hurt yourself.
So, I look at my forearm now and I can count, as we were trying to generate good technique with electrodes, I can count six scars on my wrist where I burned myself very badly. The electrode-skin interface is critical to take care of, or you’re going to scar yourself up. And that’s not good.
The second reason I’m biased against DIY home use is that the devices that are available have not been run through any studies, for safety or effectiveness. And so I really worry that because we don’t have documented safety, effectiveness, and feasibility that what is really going to happen is there’s going to be a bunch of people who fail to get their desired effect, burn themselves, and it affects the ability of other people who are being careful to move forward to get this technology into the hands of consumers, patients, and other interested parties that might be able to benefit from this.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. So to kind of go with that, what kind of advice would you give to someone who’s interested in playing around with this? Is there any safe way to do this now? Because we’re talking about safety here. So safety concerns. And I guess most people are going to be a little bit wary of applying electricity to their brains.
Beyond skin burns we’ve talked about skin burns could there be potential other damage? Say you stimulated the wrong areas? Or, maybe some of these units enable you to turn the charge up higher, and is that something that could cause some kind of brain interruption? I’m not going to say damage here, it’s a big word, but could it cause some kind of issue for you?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I believe that’s possible. So I just came from a conference in New York last week, and there’s an active debate in the community whether electrical brain stimulation is more like caffeine, where, “Nah, let it go, let’s see what happens.” Or, more like a cigarette, where, you let it go, you see what happens, and you discover down the road that you might not have done something correctly, or you might have hurt some people.
What is it? Is it more like caffeine, is it more like a cigarette? There’s not a single study right now, not one, that has done imaging long term stimulation with tDCS, and then brain imaging again to find out if the technique ultimately does cause changes in the brain that might be deleterious. We just don’t know. So, we’ve got to be careful about that.
What I would say to the DIY community is that long term study doesn’t exist. The other thing I would say to the DIY community is the exact same thing I said to people I met in Los Angeles a while back, with people for the Olympic Team. Pole Vaulting team, in particular.
And they were asking if we could use tDCS to enhance performance, because, little did I know, but I guess pole vaulting is one of the most cognitively demanding sports in track and field. Where you have to put a giant sequence of things that are done perfectly together in order to get a good pole vault.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Well I’m guessing also, in terms of neuromuscular activation, tDCS could be helping increase your strength, basically, by enhancing neuromuscular activation. Is that part of that too?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Well it reduces your perceived effort. That helps with things like fatigue. But what I said to them was, what do you want to ingrain in your brain? Is it the case that if you have a bad pole vault, you want that to stick? My guess is no. But if you have a good pole vault, you want that to stick.
So, I worry that right now, given our level of understanding, if you just put it on somebody’s head and they go pole vaulting, what if you make bad technique stick? And be hard to get over? You might actually hurt your Olympics team, or your Olympic athletes. You might decrease their performance instead of increase it. And so, I was pretty dubious about that, and I said I don’t think we’re ready to do this with you guys. I’m sorry.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s a great example, and it sounds like it connects with the argument that’s currently going on in neurofeedback at the same time.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yes.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Because they’re asking, okay so we’re not sure of where we’re going. So there’s different neurofeedback technologies. There’s some that just try to enhance what you have, kind of like help your brain to know what it’s doing, and then there are others which are kind of pointing in a direction. And people are a bit nervous about the one’s pointing in a direction.
Which I guess what you’re saying is I don’t know which direction in most of these applications we should be pointing the brain. You know, should we be activating this more? We’re making an educated guess with the MEG and the other technologies right now.
How confident do you feel in those applications, or are you feeling this is going to be a research, and potentially a medical use, where people are actually going to get big benefits? It’s not just going to go from healthy to a performance increase, but it’s, you know, “I’ve got some health issue, I’ve got some brain issue, and maybe I can get back to normal.”
So that’s generally where technologies start, because it’s in a more extreme, desperate situation, and there’s a bigger upside to using technology. It’s like, am I going to be a little bit non-functional for the rest of my life, or am I potentially going to get back to normal functioning? So could you highlight what your opinion on that is?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: However you decide to alter your brain, there’s no free lunch. Right?
So there’s very good data out of Roi Cohen Kadosh’s lab at Oxford that if you apply tDCS to enhance mathematical ability in one field, or in one type of math, you decrease your ability to do a different kind of math. And that is potentially an issue, in the case that how would you best apply this for your specific application?
Well in the DIY market, you don’t even have this choice. What you’ve got is one electrode configuration, one type of electrode, one recommended spot on your head. You don’t even have the freedom to apply this to your specific situation that you would like to change. So I’m worried that what’s out there now, especially for the DIY market, is gimmicky and quirky, and maybe dangerous.
I mean, there’s very little in the way of harm. The side effects are very low with tDCS, but I worry that there’s always somebody that’s going to pushing that limit, and pushing that limit, and having limited options. Maybe turning the current twice as high, using it twice as often. Soon you’re going to have somebody who hurts themselves, and then we all feel bad about that. Nobody feels good about that.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. Great, thanks. Alright, so tips for someone who is going to do this at home anyway, [despite] listening to this interview, which I’m sure there’s people out there, because I see a lot of talk about tDCS, and one of my buddies has been playing around with it.
So, if they were going to track something that might help them to know it’s actually improving, versus worsening what they’re up to, are there any biomarkers or anything like that you would advise they watch so that they can tell if it’s probably a positive versus a negative? Or is it kind of very difficult because it’s quite task specific, so you kind of need to look at whatever the task is, and try to measure somehow that you’re getting better or worse at it?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: So, I would say there’s two things that we know we’re fairly close to clinical application on. One is depression. So you might want to have somebody monitor their mood, and do mood ratings every day to find out if when they use tDCS does it alter their mood. And I would say the other thing that you might have somebody do is to monitor their perceived effort.
So let’s say that you go to the gym, and you get home and you feel awful, and you get old and fat like I am. You go to the gym, and you’re tired and sore, and don’t feel so good the next day. So, does your willingness to return to the gym, does that change when you use tDCS? Or your willingness to engage in a task that’s difficult for you? Does that change?
Pay attention to that kind of stuff. I hope that if you are going to go ahead and use this against my recommendations I do not recommend this at all you do it very carefully. Take care of your electrode-skin interface, and monitor something that we know for a fact has, well we know that in a carefully selected population we can have a meaningful effect.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Thank you. That struck me as very meaningful measures, which could hopefully avoid them going backwards for a long time if it actually does turn out negative, and hopefully give them some positive feedback.
In terms of this whole area, where do you see it going in the next five or ten years? Or where would you hope it goes?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I hope a couple of things. So, first I hope that companies like, there’s a company called Thync that is going to come out with a consumer device for electrical brain stimulation here within the next couple of months. And so, I hope that Think’s safety record is as stellar as they hope it will be.
I also think that you’re going to have combined therapies, or closed loop therapies, that are going to lead the field. So, let’s say that somebody is sitting there at their computer, and when we monitor their eye movement what we notice is that their eyes are not paying attention to [the] task. And so we could turn on tDCS in order to help them stay engaged with tasks when we notice that they’re deviating from a task.
I think those are applications that might come. So especially I hope that the safety’s good, because I know people are going to push it out there whether we like it or not, and I hope that people start thinking about ways to put the stimulation in a closed loop to help people when they need help, and turn it off when people are doing fine.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, thanks. What’s the most exciting thing you think, in terms of opportunities? So you looked at the downsides there, and hoping that the downsides I can see, you’re like, “Oh, I hope this doesn’t cause a mess.”
So, what would be the upsides over the next five or ten years for you? If you were to get involved in research, or if some of your projects were to work well and maybe develop over the next ten years, what would be the exciting opportunities for you?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I would say that the traumatic brain injury work really has me quite excited. So in traumatic brain injury, there really is no good therapy. There is a whole lot of, try it a different way, take this drug to deal with problem A, take a different drug to deal with problem B, take a third drug to deal with problem C. And hope that those drugs interact in a way that’s friendly and works.
Something else like multiple sclerosis. I mean, [there’s] really no good treatment. I keep hoping that one of these brain stimulation technologies is really going to enter that space and make a difference for people right now that really have no, no good treatment available.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Have you seen structural change influenced by tDCS? So, like if you stimulated an area for a while if it had atrophied at all, would you potentially see some de-atrophying, or growing back, or anything like that?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: We’ve seen white matter changes with tDCS. So, white mater changes are the wires that connect different pieces of the brain, and it looks to strengthen them.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So white matter is myelin?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: White matter is axons that are coated with myelin. So it’s the part of the neuron that’s coated with myelin. And so, it looks like the myelin coating is getting stronger.
Now, this is not yet verified by a lot of studies, but I had a conversation with a researcher from Harvard last Sunday night. They have seen similar things to what’s going on in our lab in Dayton, Ohio. So we’re actively working together to see if we can understand better how we might be affecting myelin and white matter using tDCS.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. But there’s no grey matter changes?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Not that we’ve seen.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay, great.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Not that we’ve seen.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So, in terms of someone at home learning more about the types of tDCS, and potentially some of the other things you’ve been talking about today, where would you direct them to? Or what would be good sources of information where they could learn more, and get more into depth? Especially if they’re going to potentially use this, [or are] thinking about using this. Is there anywhere you would direct them to learn more?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Well, if it’s a DIY person, there’s a website called DIYtDCS, and it has a whole bunch of audio interviews and blogs by a guy who really does keep up, pretty amazingly, with the literature. I can’t keep up with the literature, but this guy does a great job.
So, there’s a great deal of information there, there are some good interviews by a lot of real top flight scientists. So that’s a good reference, and I would pay attention to the idea that every single person who is on there who’s a top flight scientist worries that this is going to hurt somebody at this point, and that we need to be very careful.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I mean, it sounds a little bit comparable to nootropics. There’s a wide variety of nootropics out there today, and we don’t know the long term effects of them. For many of them, sometimes it’s even anecdotal. Some people say they work, and some people say they don’t.
Would you compare it to nootropics? I don’t know how much you know about nootropics, but it’s another approach to stimulating and changing. Another approach [through] chemistry rather than stimulation. But would you say it’s as risky, or potentially the same?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Well I would say nootropics is not a new idea, right? I would say caffeine is nootropic. So, is it the same, is it difference? I would say people are often pushing the limits of their capability, and would like to be able to go that one more step.
And so, in that sense, I think, the nootropics and the brain stimulation stuff are really partially the same desire of individuals to better themselves, and to be able to push that one more step. And so, I’m all about that. I just think that we need to approach it in a reasoned and careful way.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, great, thanks. Rounding off into, I’d love to get to know a little bit more about. You know, you’ve obviously taken a very vigorous approach to this area. How about yourself? Are there any data metrics that you track for your own body on a routine basis, to gain insights or improve health, longevity, performance, or any other concerns?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah I wear a band on my wrist all the time that tells me about my steps, and it also does actigraphy that gives you some insight into sleep. And I look at it every day, and I download the information. It looks like I’m reaching about half my goal all the time instead of the goal I should be shooting for.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I see you smiling there, so it sounds like you’re happy that your meeting those goals.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah, well I mean, it’s better than zero. And it also, it kind of helps you think about being more healthy. It kind of prompts you.
So my wife and I are very much, the little town we live in has restaurants that are about a mile and a half away, a grocery store that’s about a mile and a half away. And we often walk to the restaurant or walk to the grocery store. And I’m not sure we would have done that if I didn’t have this little thing on my wrist bugging me all the time saying, hey, get out of your chair and go do something.
So, I use that kind of thing. I mean, we all use devices that help us regulate our activity. I mean one very simple example is an alarm clock. It aids in your sleep-wake cycle. Another thing that people often use is a meal at a scheduled time. It helps them to set the tempo of their day, or to set the day up so they are meeting expectations. So, there’s all kinds of these little things that we use, that we monitor, that we impose upon ourselves in order to help us get to where we want to be.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. Can I ask which tracker are you using on your wrist there?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah, I use the original Polar Loop. That’s what I typically use. And I use it just because I thought it had the best cosmetic appearance. That was the whole… It was the least obtrusive, least clunky looking…
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s true. A lot of them do look a bit clunky. I guess that’s where Apple’s trying to come into the market, to de-clunkatize it.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Well, Apple’s had a history of doing that well when they lead. I’m not sure they have a great history of doing that when they follow. So, we’ll see how that all works out.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: In terms of tDCS, actually, have you used tDCS yourself? Is it something you have applied to yourself, or are you basically, ìI’m not going to use this technology, it’s far too dangerous.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I’ve put it on my head for demos, and I’ve put it on my head to test paradigms. I will not do anything to a subject that I wouldn’t do myself.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: It sounds like you’ve done a lot then.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I’ve probably had it on my head 50, 60 times, for sure.
I do not use it if I need to focus to get something done. And I do not use it if I wake up in the morning and I’m super tired, and I think I need a boost. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but I’m not afraid of it at all. I put it on my head, stimulated in multiple different ways, to try to basically reassure myself that I wasn’t going to do something stupid to some other human being.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s a great attitude. Now I’m guessing you’ve got the unit that has good electrodes that aren’t going to burn you now.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: We’ve developed some electrodes that have never caused a burn.
As a matter of fact, electrodes cause such a little bit of skin reaction that not too long ago we did a demonstration on a film crew that came from New York, from a place called Vocative. And when we took the electrodes off, the skin was a little bit red. And I said to one of my graduate students, take this gel and test it, I think the gel is going bad. And in fact it was.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Is that something you could license? Is that a technology that you need to license to other companies?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Well we’ve applied for a patent for that stuff, and I am actually in active discussions to do some of that kind of stuff.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay, last question here. What would be your number one recommendation to someone trying to use some form of data to make better decisions about their body’s health, performance, and longevity?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I would say I think about this all the time and I actually regularly do this is when I get up in the morning, have a standard routine, and just kind of meditate for a minutes. Or think through your body, top to bottom, how am I feeling today? What are the things that I could do better if I wanted to feel a little differently?
So it’s almost like a self-check, right? Like you’re doing a system test. Don’t get up at the last minute, run out the door, find out ten minutes into your drive that you have a headache, or your guts don’t feel right today. But get up, have a nice standard breakfast, and just kind of think through from the top of your head to the tip of your toes about how you’re feeling today, and what would be the thing that you might do today to make yourself feel better tomorrow.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s great. So is that actually a semi-meditative practice, or are you just being quiet, and just trying to be internally focused and trying to see what’s up. Being self-aware kind of thing? Or is it focusing on your breathing, using one of the techniques. Or is it just kind of your own mindfulness, trying to be aware of your body?
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: I think it’s very much mindfulness. So, just yesterday I went out and chopped wood for three hours. So this morning I get up and I’m a little sore. And I think to myself, where am I sore, why am I sore. And it turns out, for god knows what reason, my hands are the things that are really the sorest, from gripping the stupid ax handle while it was wet.
And so, when I think about this, what I think about is now, well, I should stretch my hands, I should be careful to make sure that I’m not repeating that same kind of motion today, if I can avoid it. Just, making sure that you think it through what’s the step you are going to take to make it better, and then actually carry it out.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. Thank you Michael. I actually start my day with something similar, or at least I try to. I don’t succeed every day, I don’t know if you’re better at that than me. But some phases when I’m more stable. When I’m traveling a lot, it really tends to suffer. Now I’m just kind of getting back into it, and it really makes a difference for me too, just a similar practice to yours.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Yeah.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So, I can vouch for that from personal experience also. Thank you for the wealth of information. Also, all the tips on safety, being practical about this, and just you’re depth of information today. It’ been super insightful. Thank you very much.
[Dr. Michael Weisend]: Oh, no problem. Glad to help.