News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.


The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

Tune In, Turn On … and Train Your Brain?

By Michael N. Tennison, MA

In the early 1990s, visionary futurist Terence McKenna hypothesized that two seemingly disparate modalities of consciousness alteration and extension—drugs and computers—might ultimately converge.  If he were still alive today, even Terence might be surprised at the accuracy of his assessment.

As reported by the Boston Globe on February 8Thync, a company marketing a new neuro-enhancement device to be released later this year, purports to give users computerized control over fundamental elements of consciousness, including mood, cognitive capacities, and energy levels.  Enticing the potential consumer to “shift [one’s] state of mind” and “conquer life,” Thync claims its device can stimulate neural pathways with “intelligent waveforms,” or “vibes.”  Different “vibes,” they claim, produce results akin to a coffee-induced jolt on one hand or an alcohol-induced relaxation on the other.  The Thync prototype appears to rely on transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), a mechanism that sends very low-level currents of electricity through the brain.  Scientists hypothesize that these low levels of electricity may produce subthreshold stimulation.  This means that the current gives neurons just enough of a boost to prime them to fire – without exciting them enough to cause firing.   Researchers believe that this may put neurons in a state of readiness to engage in neuroplasticity, enabling neurological changes that may be useful for patients and healthy consumers alike.

Reporters have been awed by the potential of consumer-grade brain stimulation to enhance all sorts of neurologically-mediated capacities, from learning and focus to attention and mood.  In 2012, one reporter stated that a 20 minute session of tDCS induced a Zen-like state of deep calm that facilitated the near-instant acquisition of new skill sets, lasting for several days until finally tapering off completely. Recent studies, on the other hand, suggest that single-session tDCS interventions may deliver little more than the placebo effect. In a review of 59 analyses, Australian researchers found tDCS to have no significant effect on executive function, memory, language, or other cognitive capacities.  Despite the data’s inconclusiveness—not to mention lack of FDA approval for therapeutic use—tDCS can be purchased online and even built in an afternoon with parts from a standard electronics store.

Online forums dedicated to personal tDCS use have sprung up across the internet, typically encouraging the use of studied protocols with respect to electrode placement, duration of application, and level of current. Many intrepid users freely experiment, seeking to probe the edges of consciousness not unlike psychedelic explorers of yesteryear.  This, of course, raises the chief concern about tDCS: regardless of whether or not the device can bring about the desired mental states, users place themselves at risk of harm either by mistake or misadventure.

When administered by trained scientists in a research setting, tDCS appears to have few, if any, negative effects.  The most serious reported negative effects pertain to skin irritation caused by electrodes.  Little to no evidence is available, however, about long-term risks.  One can certainly imagine a situation in which tDCS does bring about the desired results, to which users habituate or addict, either requiring ever-greater doses of electricity or otherwise interfering with their lives.  In addition, the risks of novel parameter configurations employed by home users, such as placement of the electrodes—selected either intentionally or by mistake—may not have been studied, and new risks could emerge.

Companies like Thync and others could mitigate some of these risks.  By programming parameter limitations into its device’s operating software, limits the duration and intensity of the electricity it produces.  Yet, just as tinkerers have been able to “jailbreak” their smartphones, such a practice may be possible with tDCS devices.

How much protection should consumers have at this point from commercial tDCS devices and their own experimentation?  In a counterintuitive twist, tDCS must be approved by FDA if it is marketed “therapeutically” – that is, to treat or cure any medical condition.  Yet, when marketed for private, non-therapeutic use the same device escapes FDA’s regulatory authority.  Whether the device is used therapeutically or recreationally could boil down to different semantic characterizations of exactly the same thing.  And is enhancement – helping junior learn his multiplication tables faster, for example – “therapeutic” or “recreational”?  So far, the FDA has not explicitly weighed in, but it recently released a draft guidance exempting “low risk general wellness products” from regulation as medical devices; whether this applies to tDCS, however, is unclear.

Should this apparent regulatory loophole be of concern?  After all, as a society we not only permit but encourage all sorts of activities that carry substantial risks for the participants, such as sky diving, motorcycle riding, and football.  This deference to rugged individualism and autonomy is deeply embedded in American culture.  But when it comes to risks associated specifically with alterations of consciousness, the government tends to be more paternalistic, if not consistent, in its approach to individual liberty.  Recreational drug use is prohibited unless it involves only our society’s politically-sanctioned drugs of choice—caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol.

This bifurcation has little to do with safety: tobacco contributes to more deaths per year than all illegal drugs combined. What is, or is not, permitted is a fundamentally political choice.  Thus, the emergence of commercial tDCS can and should prompt a new discussion about the regulation of consciousness alteration, whether performed by chemical or technological means.

Michael Tennison is a JD candidate (’15) at the University of Maryland.

Dispatch: “Neuro-interventions and the Law” Conference

Dr. Ekaterina Pivovarova

Dr. Ekaterina Pivovarova

On September 12-14, 2014, the Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium was held at Georgia State University. The topic, Neuro-Interventions and the Law: Regulating Human Mental Capacity, brought together leading scholars on philosophy, neuroscience, law, cognitive and clinical psychology, psychiatry, and bioethics. The participants included Judge Andre Davis, Nita Farahany, Stephen Morse, Francis Shen, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Nicole Vincent, and Paul Root Wolpe. The conference panels, talks, and keynotes addressed pressing issues about managing and appropriately utilizing novel neuroscientific technologies as they relate to legal issues. Continue reading »

Electrify your brain…Supercharge your mind?

Society has long fantasized about a day when science would provide technological cures for societal ills such as aggression, impulsive decision-making, and depression. In the popular science fiction TV Show, Star Trek, a medical tricorder was waved over the body, magically probing internal systems and recalibrating problems without any side effects. For some medical illnesses, such a device seems just around the corner (See Qualcomm’s $10 Million Tricorder XPrize; Scanadu Scout). However, for mental illnesses, which are particularly complex and poorly understood, such a solution remains elusive. Nevertheless, several prominent media outlets have drawn attention to the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a technique which delivers a low-intensity direct current to modulate the activity of neurons in the cerebral cortex, as an early example of such a fabled device.

Indeed, by utilizing tDCS, researchers at academic medical centers have made widespread reports of its therapeutic effects on a number of neuropsychiatric disorders ranging from major depressive disorder, pain disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, drug addiction, Parkinson’s disease and motor deficits after stroke. Moreover, outside a disease population, researchers have also found that a normal population is capable of benefitting from tDCS – showing increased performance across a variety of cognitive tasks such as attention, memory and decision-making.
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