A risky treatment for depression: Experts warn against the dangers of DIY brain stimulation
09/17/2019 // Cassie B. // Views

Depression can be a debilitating disease, and it’s not surprising that sufferers are desperate to get rid of it. However, if you’re jumping on the DIY brain stimulation trend, scientists have a very serious warning for you.

Although some studies have shown that brain stimulation holds promise for people with depression, it’s not very accessible, limited mostly to those selected for clinical trials. This has led some people, especially those who live in rural areas, to try at-home brain stimulation devices.

In fact, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) devices can be made using simple parts and tools, which makes it a somewhat attractive option to those who are hoping to avoid the very serious and potentially deadly side effects of antidepressants. People are using these devices not only to alleviate depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder; in some cases, they are simply doing it because they believe it might boost their memory or creativity.

Consider the dangers

The concept of modern brain stimulation might be more palatable than the electroshock therapy that was used in psychiatric hospitals in the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe – especially when it’s carried out by people without the proper training. There are countless ways that sending electrical currents into your brain without medical supervision could go wrong.

In an open letter published in the Annals of Neurology, neuroscientists from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center outlined some very serious risks associated with the practice.


Brain stimulation experts have said that we simply don’t have a full understanding yet of what the mild currents used in this treatment could do to different areas of the brain over time. Many home users are using frequencies and durations that haven’t been tested, with some doing it daily for months on end.

Some people mistakenly believe that doing it for longer can bring on better results; experts say that it can actually create the opposite effect.

What we do know, however, is that burns are not uncommon. One of the letter’s authors points out that the outcomes of tDCS are unpredictable and that it can even make brain function worse in certain cases.

On top of that, stimulation is hard to control, which means it often extends past the areas under the electrodes into areas that aren’t being targeted. Scientists aren’t sure how the stimulation in one area could affect the brain networks connected to it.

Another issue is the fact that what an individual does both before and during the treatment, such as sleeping, reading or solving puzzles, could alter its outcome. Age, medication use, head anatomy differences, gender, and even being left- or right-handed can all affect the outcome.

Don’t overlook the role of nutrition in mental health

With that option clearly off the table if you care about your health, what can you do if you want to alleviate problems like depression and anxiety without resorting to medication?

One solid approach that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is proper nutrition. It may not sound as transformative as hooking electrodes up to your brain, but it’s surprisingly powerful. In fact, studies have linked a diet high in fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, antioxidants and olive oil with a lower risk of depression, while those who consume a lot of processed meats and refined grains at the expense of produce have a higher risk of depression.

Nutritional interventions can go surprisingly far when it comes to mental health, and they won’t burn your head or negatively impact your brain in the long term like DIY brain stimulation or raise your risk of suicide like some antidepressants. In fact, the main side effect of cleaning up your diet is better health overall – now that’s a risk worth taking!

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