Magnetic brain stimulation: the new drug

I just came across this Wired item on a magnetic brain stimulator that’s being discussed at the latest American Psychiatric Association meeting as a new therapeutic tool for treating depression.

It works like this: much of your brain activity is electrical. You can drive electrical activity by changing nearby magnetic fields. Thus, with cleverly designed electromagnets, you can push and pull the electrical activity deep in your brain through the process known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This technique has been around for a while, but like all things technological, it’s gotten much better in the last few years. An article in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago made a splash by describing how an Australian researcher could turn anybody into a creative savant (temporarily) with TMS. These claims, it turns out, may have been overstated, but still, the news about TMS was starting to spread.

At the same MIT conference I mentioned here (H2.0 at the Media Lab) there was a brief presentation by neurological research wunderkind Ed Boyden. He’s doing all kinds of fascinating research, including using lasers to suppress and excite neuron activity in rats. But all anybody wanted to ask him about was his TMS research. Does it work? Does it hurt? Is it fun? It was obvious that there’s a fascination with this device that’s going to catapult it into the street when it becomes cheap. The whole thing vaguely reminded me of the period in the early 1960s when LSD escaped from the Stanford Psychology department. Not to suggest that this has the hitting power of LSD, but I know that anything that promises to give people a cheap thrill or even a dull buzz will be appropriated and abused in short order. The first thing that occurred to me was that researchers in this area should make sure they’re in a position to learn from the crazy shit people will do in their basements because nobody can stop them. I mentioned this to Ed Boyden, and I was impressed that he had already considered this. He’s created a wiki site called OpenStim that’s dedicated to letting people report on their research. Or their “research” as the case may be.

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