Aspirin is a miracle medication. Isolated by Hoffman in 1897, it is a simple compound that, these days, can be created by anyone who has had a high-school chemistry course. Aspirin can, of course, be purchased in commercial form and most people are familiar with certain maladies that can be treated by it. On the fringes, there are esoteric uses for aspirin, but in the main, it is well understood and used by millions of people every day.
What about transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)? It’s simpler and (apparently) safer than aspirin – when used correctly – and is effective in treating depression, chronic pain, enhancing learning and much more in otherwise healthy people. So why can’t the average person on the street buy a tDCS device and self-administer treatment?
There are at least three reasons. First, tDCS is relatively new and studies that confirm its effectiveness and safety are just emerging. Two, certain tDCS treatment scenarios can be pretty complex, well beyond the ability of an average person to carry out. Third, there is no way for big-pharma to cash in on tDCS (yet). It’s very unlikely you will ever see expensive commercials during your favorite TV show advertising tDCS to treat some focus-group tested three-letter malady. It won’t happen. tDCS devices are extremely simple to build (or buy) and treatment protocols for certain ailments ARE simple and are all over the internet.
The average Joe will learn about tDCS and start demanding access to it because a bunch of do-it-yourself (DIY) folks and a few physicians will have succeeded in a grass-roots effort to get the word out. Yes, there is also a small and growing group of doctors that see the obvious benefits of tDCS (and lack of risk) and are starting to use it with their patients – and their patients are becoming some of the best spokes-persons for tDCS.
According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 adults in the US uses some form of antidepressant. Their depression may or may not be well controlled and they likely suffer at least some noticeable side effects. Sources vary, but about $3 billion is spent on antidepressants every year. These numbers do not reflect a significant number of individuals who ARE depressed but not receiving any treatment – due to costs, social pressures, etc.
It’s hard to believe, but various sources report that as many as 1 in 3 Americans suffer from chronic pain. Cost? $500-600 billion per year!
The tDCS Triad
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation has been shown to provide relief for depression and chronic pain, and to enhance learning (the tDCS triad) – and much more. When treating the “triad”, it is simple, apparently very safe, and has no significant side effects. Can similar claims be made for any other other treatment (medication)?
Does it work for everyone? The simple answer is no, but for many it does – and for many who failed to get relief (or enhancement) from medications.
tDCS is not just about depression, chronic pain, and learning enhancement. As mentioned above, there are very broad areas of research seeking potential use in treating Alzheimers, stroke, brain trauma, etc. Treatment for those less understood ailments can be quite complex and require MRI or FMRI to design an appropriate regimen and the use of “high definition” tDCS, using ten electrodes or more, as part of the treatment. This is well beyond the ability of the DIY community.
But the “triad” (depression, chronic pain, learning enhancement) is normally treated with simple “bipolar tDCS” – two electrodes are placed in very specific locations on the scalp, which are well known, as part of normal treatment.
Because bi-polar tDCS involves such simple equipment and procedures, a rather sizable “do-it-yourself” community has taken up the mantle of treating themselves and helping friends reap the benefits of tDCS.
DIY tDCS is growing because most doctors have no idea what tDCS is – or what it can do. Further, doctors who do use tDCS cannot bill insurance for tDCS treatments (it is not yet “recognized” by the FDA.) So treatment can be expensive – out of reach for many – and simply unavailable in most areas of the US. So it seems that the DIY community will continue to build tDCS devices, use tDCS to treat the “triad”, and spread the word via emails and blogs. Meanwhile, research centers, Universities, and the like will continue their work on all areas of tDCS using their more sophisticated equipment and techniques to push the boundaries of tDCS application.
tDCS for Everyone?
One day, tDCS may be as commonly used as aspirin for treating certain issues – but we have a long, long way to go to get to that point. Like aspirin, tDCS won’t help everyone – but scientific and anecdotal evidence says it can help many. So while we wait, millions go untreated (or poorly-treated) and live lesser lives due to lack of access to tDCS triad treatments and all the benefits they can bring. Come on medical community, come on FDA.