Who Uses Direct-to-Consumer Brain Stimulation Products, and Why? A Study of Home Users of tDCS Devices

Abstract

Despite the attention garnered by the home (or “do-it-yourself”) use of tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation), little is known about the population of actual users. The present study aimed to provide a comprehensive examination of those who purchase tDCS devices: who they are, how they learn about tDCS, and why and how they stimulate. A link to an online survey was sent to those who had purchased a tDCS device from seven different companies selling tDCS devices to the public as of June 2016; data was analyzed from 339 participants, the majority of whom reported residing in North America. The typical respondent was a wealthy, highly educated, liberal, fortysomething male living in the USA who reported being an early adopter of technology. Nearly three quarters of respondents reported using tDCS for cognitive enhancement, one-quarter for restoration, and approximately 40% for treatment; many participants selected a combination of usage indications. Notably, approximately one third of participants utilize tDCS to self-treat depression. Most who use tDCS for treatment find the technology to be effective, whereas most who use it for non-treatment purposes (i.e., only enhancement and/or restoration) find it to be ineffective. Approximately 40% of those who purchase tDCS devices either quit using the device (mostly due to lack of efficacy) or have never used the device (mostly due to lack of guidance). Participants depart from established scientific protocol particularly with regard to frequency of stimulation, with 8.4% reporting self-administering 100+ sessions of tDCS. With regard to side effects, a small subset of users (n = 10) reported serious skin burns. This study provides an empirical foundation on which to base policy recommendations and offers a fact-based perspective on a bioethical debate that has too-often been one step removed from reality.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks Nicholas S. Fitz for assistance with the design and coding of the study; members of the DIY tDCS community for input on the survey; Dawei Xie for statistical support; Jonathan Reisman, Peter Reiner, and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments; and the seven direct-to-consumer tDCS companies who participated in this study.

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Correspondence to Anna Wexler.

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Wexler, A. Who Uses Direct-to-Consumer Brain Stimulation Products, and Why? A Study of Home Users of tDCS Devices. J Cogn Enhanc 2, 114–134 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-017-0062-z

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Keywords

  • Transcranial direct current stimulation
  • tDCS
  • Do-it-yourself
  • Consumer neurotechnology
  • Direct-to-consumer neuroscience
  • Neuroethics