DIY Shock Therapy

Midway through the Roman Empire, an unnamed court official who answered to Emperor Tiberius stepped on a fish and changed the course of medical history. The electric torpedo fish, common in the Mediterranean Sea, shocked the administrator, who then noticed that the gout in his leg had greatly reduced. The word reached the Roman physician Scribonius Largus, who then became famous I recommended the shock absorberswhen applied to the head, to treat headaches.

A a new study explores a modern form of torpedo treatment. It’s a new kind of head shock that’s being studied for headaches, insomnia, depression and dozens of other conditions. What’s more, unless you’re affiliated with some research project, the only way to get this procedure, transcranial electrical stimulation (TES), is to do it yourself with a device at home.

How it works DIY Shock Therapy

The headache sufferer attaches an electronic device (usually purchased online) that ranges in price from $15, according to the study, to hundreds of dollars. While some look like baseball caps, others are loose kits of metal pads, wet sponges and a headband to hold everything in place. Over the course of a 20- to 30-minute session, TES works by sending an electrical current through the brain in hopes of doing… something.

Online guides show which areas of the brain to stimulate, roughly, by positioning the electrodes, in a process like watering a cortical lawn. Most devices allow the user to turn the juice at will to target sections related to emotion and impulse control, for example.

But is this safe? The new study, a meta-review of other research, found that despite TES’s do-it-yourself past, it has “excellent safety,” except for some headaches, dizziness, and skin irritation when the electrodes touch the head. TES is gentle in design and uses subthreshold currents only strong enough to affect existing brain activity rather than turning on new neurons.


Skeptics of TES have long questioned its ability to influence the brain, given its low-gain approach. A 2018 survey using rats and human cadavers, found that the skull and soft tissues around the brains absorbed about 75 percent of the current, which slowed down TES considerably. And in 2017 research found in patients with epilepsy that transcranial alternating current stimulation (a form of TES) had minimal effect on brain waves.

However, these papers have done little to slow research on TES, as researchers have investigated its usefulness for “over 70 different conditions, including major depression, epilepsy, pain, stroke rehabilitation, Parkinson’s disease, and tinnitus.” says the 2017 paper.

Some have found striking results, the new review says, such as “dramatic improvements in symptoms of devastating psychiatric conditions” such as depression. “However, these results often prove difficult to reproduce and scale up, hindering their transition from the laboratory to the clinic.”

Studies have also found that TES subtly changes the time at which neurons fire, rather than their speed, like a choreographer.

That’s enough, the team at the Montreal Neurological Institute argued, to dispel the old criticism that TES is overly scalp-tickling: “We don’t consider TES’s ability to affect individual neurons to be a mystery.”

Spotty and unpredictable/DIY Shock Therapy

A meta-review of 2020 reached a similar conclusion after reviewing 23 controlled trials that investigated the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (another form of TES) in the treatment of depression. The study found that the method, which sends a unidirectional current through the brain, was “comparatively effective.”

The Montreal review lists transcranial alternating current stimulation (TACS) as the best-understood type of TES, a category that includes several more esoteric devices. TACS works by delivering alternating current, similar in design to what powers a house.

While TES can somewhat work while the device is on, what happens when the user disconnects? A 2015 review found evidence of spotty, unpredictable consequences in the more than 20 TES experiments he examined, as opposed to stronger “online” effects when the machine was turned on.

The Montreal team suggests that there may still be lasting effects thanks to neural plasticity and the development of new connections promoted by the device’s currents. As the review states, “neurons that fire together wire together.”

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