Using tDCS to boost your brain | Does it work?

Zapping your brain, 

Supercharging your mind,

Or, wearing the magical thinking cap! 

You might have heard about that tech trend before, asking yourself if it is another commercial myth or the real mind booster. If there is a way for people to biohack their brains for superior abilities, unlocking normal thinking and cognitive abilities chains. 

In this article, we will investigate the tDCS technology; review its history of development, the science behind it and how tDCS can boost your brain functionality, review some tDCS products in the market, and try to answer the question if tDCS actually works, whether it is safe to use, and can we expect it as part of our future home gadgets.

History of Brain Electrical Stimulation 

Ancient Egyptian doctors were the first to register the usage of electrotherapy. Records dated back to the fifth dynasty showed evidence of the electric catfish (Malapterusus electricus), which used to be popular at the Nile and possessed an electrogenic organ capable of producing a powerful electricity jolt to cure arthritis pain. Further evidence shows that the Greek extended the use of the electric fish for healing cephalaea (a continued pain in the head, a lasting headache).

Using electricity in healing can be dated even to the 31st century BC
The Narmer Palette -dating about the 31st century BC- is a significant Egyptian archeological find. The tablet is thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under king Narmer. The catfish is depicted on a central position (top center) of both sides of the tablet. 

Brain exogenous stimulation is not indeed a new human endeavor both for medical or and recreational purposes. Some study shows that using cannabis plants for recreational or medical purposes could be dated even back to 500 BCE in eastern Asian societies. 

In modern ages, we started using electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) first in 1940 to create a seizure highly effective in treating severe depression, which was labeled by the New York Times back then as “Insanity treated by electric shock” . 

Then in 1985, Baker er al. introduced a new methodology, which implies connecting a wire coil to a source of electric current and placing the coil on the patients’ scalp over the motor cortex to stimulate discrete regions on the surface of the brain, what is then termed as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). That concept was then extended in 1990s to enable the delivery of long trains of closely spaced pulses or (rTMS) what extended the scope of TMS with the potential for altering brain function. In 2008, TMS gained its FDA approval as a treatment for depression, and studies suggested the effectiveness of TMS treatment in real-world settings  and confirmed the durability of TMS antidepressant as in other antidepressant medications. 

Difference between TMS and tDCS

TMS and tDCS both can induce post effects -known as neural plasticity- on cortical excitability that may result in behavioral alterations lasting for months. 

While TMS is only a neuro-stimulator with established protocols, while a tDCS device is a neuro-modulator, the externally applied direct current displaces ions with neurons, changing the neuronal excitability and modulating the firing rate of individual neurons. Because of the convenience of its application, tDCs are used in sham-controlled studies and have been already approved as direct-to-customer brain stimulation products as it is easier to apply concurrently with behavioral tasks.

The Science Behind tDCS | Easily explained 

tDCS, transcranial direct current stimulation used in brain stimulation

A simple application of tDCS would be by placing two small electrodes on the head. These electrical conductors deliver a constant current (low level) that alters the neural excitability in the brain. 

Our brains consist on a cellular level from nerve cells (neurons).  Every brain activity – such as emotions and thinking – are nothing but nerve pulses communicated between these neurons over a bridge (or so-called neuron junction) of synapses.  

The more excited are the neurons (higher firing rates), the higher the communication between them, the stronger are the synapses. That strength is referred to as synaptic plasticity. 

The tDCS technology uses two electrodes, 1 anode (positive) and 1 cathode (negative). Each is placed on specific parts of the brain. They both induce a direct current generating a controlled and modulated magnetic field on specific brain areas. 

Depending on the duration, current, and current density, the induced brain stimulation could inhibit or activate neuronal excitability (neuronal firing) and thus modulate brain activity for the sake of therapeutic effects. 

For instance, depressed patients show an asymmetrical activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, where it was observed in studies that their left hemisphere typically has a reduced neuronal activity.  When using tDCS, the anodal electrode is in place at that specific location to enhance neuronal excitability in the area causing an antidepressant effect. 

tDCs became of great interest in the neurotherapy field because of its non-invasive nature – doesn’t need surgical tools-, low cost and mild adverse effects. 

As the studies proved a therapeutic effect in modulating neuron firing to help regulate some negative brain activity. Wouldn’t it also be possible to use the neurons’ modulation mechanism to enhance positive brain activities in healthy humans like learning and memorizing?  

tDCS for healthy humans

As the application of tDCS on clinically depressed people was proved successful. The technology went directly into clinical studies to valuate its potential impacts on healthy people. 

1) Enhanced Cognitive Performance 

Several studies came up with evidence that the controlled application of tDCS may affect task-related functional networks active in the brain while delivering the electric simulation, and thus confirm the increasing evidence that tDCS can enhance cognitive performance in the healthy clinical population. 

2) Stronger Memory Performance

Working Memory (WM) is defined as a cognitive system that can hold information temporarily. It is an essential system for reasoning and decision-making. Studies have shown the effect of tDCS to enhance WM performance and also as an intervention to facilitate WM trainings. 

Another study targeted episodic memory (association of pictures and words) formation in older adults. The study provided evidence that tDCS led to better memory performance and augmented learning curves. 

3) Facilitated Language Learning 

Another study revealed superior learning during a tDCS session. The participating group in an anadol tDCS achieved a steeper learning curve and significantly more pronounce learning at the end of their training. The study provides evidence that an administered tDCS application during training sessions can facilitate language learning performance maintained over time.

4) Improved Motor Skills

Even on a muscular level, a study was performed to investigate the effect of anadol tDCS on motor skill learning (muscular task). The results confirmed a significant improvement in skill acquisition with anadol tDCS on an extended time course (3-months).  

5) Better Math Capabilities

In another study, subjects were trained for 6 days with artificial numerical symbols while ongoing tDCS sessions enhancing or impairing number processing and the mapping of numbers into space. The control tasks showed that tDCS is a realistic tool for intervention in cases of atypical numerical development or loss of numerical abilities. 

6) Repairing social skills

Even our way of thinking of others, or what is academically called socio-cognitive skills, was a subject for another tDCS study. Unsurprisingly, the study showed the efficacy of tDCS application to improve socio-cognitive skills, and suggested it’s a tool to be used in clinical population. 

tDCS Commercial Gadgets | DYI products

The convenience of the tDCS technology and the continuous scientific supporting evidence encouraged several businesses to board the race to enable the usage of tDCS at home, and provide end-user and Do It Yourself products for therapy and cognitive enhancement purposes. 

Halo Neuroscience was founded in 2013 by Dr. Daniel Chao and Dr. Brett Wingeier. The company introduced their exciting product Halo Sports as a brain stimulator that helps you develop muscle memory faster. A study performed on a group of athletes suggests that the product is able to enhance aspects of sprint cycling ability cognitive performance. 

The Swedish startup Flow, founded in January 2016, focuses on treating people with depression. Their tDCS product offers a depression treatment that doesn’t involve medication and can be done from home comfort. The company claims that the technique applied through their headset is based on independent randomized controlled trial studies that included depression patients and showed a 41% withdrawal of depression symptoms within 6 weeks of brain stimulation against 22% on the placebo group. 

Brain Control Co. Ltd is a London-based startup. The company introduced Go Flow as the smallest tDCS stimulator in the market. The device uses a stimulator with up to 4mA current, double the power of other tDCS.

Activadose is a product developed by ActivaTek, a Canadian partner in research with the foundation of therapy. The product is claimed to be used for learning enhancement by universities and professionals around the world, the device is capable of stimulation up to 2mA and 4 mA. 

Does tDCS have a significant impact? 

When reviewing most of the studies’ results and many of the personal experiences with tDCS brain stimulation, we can see that the impact’s significance is neither straightforward nor universal. Not a strap on and boom kind of thing. If you are intending to use tDCS at home, you need to learn how to use a tDCS device and learn what anticipate. The effect is majorly dependent on several factors: 

1) Adequacy of application  

Unsupervised application in an uncontrolled environment would usually return irrelevant or placebo effects. Significant results have usually been observed in controlled environment studies with precise application of the devices. Typically, the stimulation has to happen during certain activities while being adjusted and repeated to capture real impact, which can be seen as a potential for the futility of cheap and poorly-instructed DIY products. 

2) Individual characteristics

The effect you will gain from tDCS will not only depend on the outside environment you create when applying the stimulation but also your internal environment, your mental and emotional status, and the individual responsiveness of your brain.

3) Application settings

Despite the core simplicity of tDCS technology, the fine details of duration, frequency of application, current amount, current density, and placement can alter or even reverse the neuron modulation’s impact. A slight mistake in the device settings and installation can broadly impact the significance of the effect. 

Is it safe to zap your brain with tDCS? 

We have repeatedly found evidence that indicates that the use of conventional tDCS protocols (≤40 min, ≤4 mA, ≤7.2 Coulombs) has not produced any severe adverse effect or irreversible injury even in vulnerable populations. Yet brain injuries were found in some animal models when the brain current densities reached (6.3–13 A/m2) over an order of magnitude above those produced by conventional tDCS. Also, some personal accounts like the one reported by Sandra Boccard-Binet is a research scientist at the University of Oxford, claiming to experience a long-term medical issue associated with tDCS study she voluntarily took part in.  


Regarding the amount of research and studies supporting the benefits of tDCS in helping mental disorders and for cognitive enhancement, it is clearly hard to give in to the thought that the whole buzz about it is just another pop science myth or solely business-driven. 

The technology has a solid scientific background and an evolving history of development. When considering all the technical factors that govern the application of tDCS, real significant impacts can positively be anticipated. 

The final question arises, is the tDCS technology going to be a reliable gadget of a new human to boost brain abilities?  

We can only see that the technology is definitely on a track of development. The scientific research behind it and the business interest growing around it both promise further development in the clinical application of tDCS and TMS as well as the end user tDCS products, which can grow into sets of gadgets, which a new human can use to boost his performance in learning, training, and creativity. 

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