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Hacking the brain: can DIY neuroscience make you happier – and smarter?

Using kit purchased on the internet for £60, trend-setters are perking up their brains with low-level blasts of electricity. Lucy Jones tries it out.

The emperor Claudius suffered from the most savage migraines. By 46AD, he was in his late fifties and, presumably at his wits’ end from the pain, he agreed that his esteemed doctor Scribonius Largus could try something new and a little off-the-wall.

Largus, who had his work cut out for him looking after a boss with a long list of health problems and a mercurial temper, paid a local fisherman to catch a couple of electric eels from the Mediterranean Sea. Back at the palace, he held them to the emperor’s temples in an attempt to quell his excruciating headache. It is the first recorded instance of electrical stimulation being used as a medical treatment.

Fast-forward two thousand years or so to a couple of students in their early twenties in a bedroom in Leeds, using electricity in an attempt to make their lives better and easier. A brain stimulation kit bought on the internet includes the wires, electrode sponges, headband and basic device needed to get them started. A nine-volt battery is not included.

Katie, 23, has suffered from anxiety and depression since she was 18. When her boyfriend Lee told her about transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), a form of neurostimulation that involves administering a low level of electrical current to the brain, she was sceptical. But Lee had heard that it could help people with mood disorders and wondered if she might benefit.

“The first time, I freaked out,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘I can’t cope with putting electrical stimulations in my brain.’ Lee put this machine on and, it’s difficult to explain, but everything went empty in a good way. I can’t remember if I’ve ever felt like that. I felt relaxed and chilled inside. It was a mad sensation and an out-of-body experience.”

She’d tried antidepressants in the past but found they didn’t work for her. Now Katie uses the kit regularly. “It’s improved my life and improved my mind,” she says.

Lee uses the tDCS kit for different reasons. He was intrigued by its claims to enhance learning. Motivated by his general interest in self-improvement, he bought the kit from a website for about £60. The first time he used it, he found it easier to revise for his degree. The information “stuck” better, and for longer. He got a First.

I ask if he is concerned that zapping his brain could be dangerous. He is a bit worried – “At the end of the day, you’re frying your brain” – but hasn’t noticed any negative effects so far.




Katie and Lee aren’t alone. Small but growing numbers of people are delivering electric currents to their heads at home with online kits. Some in this DIY brain-zapping community build their own machines from scratch. If you’ve got basic electrical skills and know how to wire a circuit board, a kit is relatively easy to make. Garage neuroscientists do it for various reasons: to speed-learn, pick up languages quickly, treat depression, reduce anxiety, increase attention span, soothe migraines, get smarter, improve confidence and memory and motor skills. The claims made for tDCS are varied and seemingly endless.

Its potential is being explored by medical and scientific professionals seeking to help people suffering from a number of diseases and symptoms, from depression to epilepsy. While scientists aren’t completely sure how it affects behaviour – and there are sceptics – we know that a flow of electrical current affects the way the brain works. The basic science is simple and it works like this: administering direct current to a particular part of the brain makes it more likely that neurons will fire under the anode ­(positive) and less likely they will fire under the cathode (negative).

Roi Cohen Kadosh, a research lecturer at the department of experimental ­psychology at Oxford University, says: “What we can say about tDCS is that it does change how our brain works. It changes the level of excitability of different brain regions.”

tDCS has been used for over 100 years but was overshadowed for much of the 20th century by electroconvulsive therapy and drug treatments. It became popular again in 2000 with the increased use of new brain-imaging techniques, such as fMRI, and other brain stimulation methods such as transcranial magnetic stimulation. Clinical trials and studies of the effects, ­veracity, safety and future of tDCS continue to mushroom. This year, it looks like kits might become readily available for the first time.

When I first heard about tDCS, it conjured up stereotypical images of shock treatment from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which the Royal College of Psychiatrists said did for electroconvulsive therapy what Jaws did for sharks). But as I read more about it, I learned that the current normally used is extremely low (1 to 2 milliamps, compared with typically 800 milliamps in electroconvulsive therapy). It sounded, within a controlled environment, safe. Maybe I should try it.

One day I went to University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience to act as a guinea pig for a doctoral student, Camilla Nord. She is running a trial on the effects of tDCS when used together with cognitive behavioural therapy – a talking treatment – to treat depression. I climbed the stairs feeling excited. My mood changers these days are limited to coffee and sugar. Would I get a buzz off electricity?

To improve the accuracy of her result, Nord is using a “double-blind” experiment, in which half her volunteers receive sham tDCS. No one, including Nord, knows whether it is a placebo or not.

According to Nord, “tDCS is this ­amazing tool and a way that neuroscience can help psychiatry”. She is hoping to find that it augments the effect of cognitive behavioural therapy, making both treatments more successful than they are in isolation. She is confident that by directing an electrical current at the neurons in the dysfunctioning area of the brain that causes depression, she can make that area more active.

I sign a form and confirm that I don’t have a history of seizures. Nord takes down my hair and puts a headband on my head. She positions two sponges dipped in saline solution on the front of my skull where the frontal cortex sits under my cranium. A towel around my neck mops up the water dripping down.

She presses the button. “I don’t feel anything.” Zap. “Should I feel something now?” Zap. She explains that there might be some tingling of the skin and continues to administer the current to my cranium. Zap, zap, zap. I feel tingling but it could just be the cold water on my scalp.

Then I’m given a brain-training “N-back” test on a PC in the corner. It’s quite hard and the room is hot. I’m not very good at it, and feel flustered. I expected heightened senses or a sharpening of my brain.

Aren’t I supposed to feel smarter?

“Saying tDCS makes you smarter is an unhelpful myth; but that doesn’t mean that tiny, specific tDCS might not make you better at tiny, specific things,” Nord explains.

We talk about recent studies that have cast doubt on the efficacy of tDCS but Nord remains optimistic that neuroscience can help people with depression and other psychiatric conditions. She is worried about people using the kits at home, however. “tDCS should be more readily available if that means people can buy safe machines. Because of the publicity about it, you get people fabricating their own machines at home with seriously unusual side effects.”

I leave feeling relaxed and a bit spaced out, but that might be tiredness from a few hours spent talking about complex science. I had the electrical current for only about five minutes. Perhaps when I try tDCS with the DIY community in east London they might be a little more cavalier with their dosages and times. But now I’m feeling a little more cautious after Nord’s warnings; I don’t really want skull burn.




The next morning I talk on Skype to Xavier, a French man who took part in Camilla Nord’s trial. Last summer, while working in the City as a banker, he began feeling depressed. He went to a GP who prescribed him pills. They didn’t work. The doctor offered cognitive behavioural therapy but there was a six-month wait. Desperate, he took up the offer to be part of the UCL experiment that offered cognitive behavioural therapy alongside tDCS.

“My friends thought it sounded a bit crazy, but I thought, ‘I need to find a solution,’” Xavier says.

Although he doesn’t know whether the tDCS he received was real, Xavier believes it was, because he felt burning on his scalp. He’s much better now and looks happy and healthy. I ask if he’d use electricity again. “In a controlled environment,” he says. “The brain is the greatest asset we all have, so you have to be careful.”

It is people like Xavier who Marom Bikson, professor of biomedical engineering at the City College of New York, hopes will benefit from tDCS as it becomes mainstream. Bikson is a leading voice in the field. He says: “I think, I hope, that tDCS has a huge potential to remove human suffering and that’s why I’m very anxious for it to be made available.”

As well as depression, he mentions fibromyalgia, neural pain and status epilepticus as serious health problems that might be treated with electricity. Depression is the area where he has seen the most encouraging results. “That’s why I’m not comfortable waiting 15 years for us to work out all the scientific questions. There are people suffering today who could benefit from this technology. Their lives are shattered by their diseases and it’s so unfortunate that something that might – big ‘might’ – be able to help them, and is considered so safe that we’ll use it on college students, is not available.”

But he is confident this is going to change very soon. “What is needed is clinical-grade tDCS, which should be made available for people to use at home. That path needs to open up and I think it will later this year.”

In April, I attend the Magstim Neuro­science Conference 2015 at Oxford University. (Magstim is a company specialising in transcranial magnetic stimulation devices, so tDCS is on the agenda.) I meet Nick Davis, a lecturer in psychology at Swansea University, who is studying the effects of tDCS on motor control. I ask him how we can use brain stimulation to improve performance in sport.

Davis gives tennis as an example, and the length of time tennis players spend getting their serve right. Imagine if they could use tDCS to reduce this. “It could free up their time to do other things and make them better players,” he says.

Of course that raises a question of ethics. Would we count that as cheating? Would we put it in the same category as using steroids? And what of the difference between sport and artistic performance?

“Say I give you cocaine and you run faster in a sprint; we would consider that cheating,” he says. “But if I give you cocaine and you write a better song, we don’t think that’s cheating – we just think that’s being in a band. We don’t care that an album was made on drugs. In sport, we care about the effort people put in so anything that improves your effort is cheating.”

The comparison between cocaine and electricity leads me to wonder how addictive tDCS could be. Most of us resort to drugs when we want to change our mood, whether it’s caffeine, a glass of wine or something stronger. I am conscious that my interest in tDCS is triggering a kind of appetite for or excitement about a potential new way of hushing my racing head and balancing my mood. But Davis doesn’t think that ­electricity could be addictive: “In the same way as performing a ritual can become not addictive but part of your behaviour, there is that potential. Is it addictive in the same way as nicotine and alcohol? I don’t think so.” Bikson agrees, describing the doses being used currently as “baby aspirin” level.

Bikson’s talk at the Oxford conference, “Are We Ready To Go Home?”, is about taking tDCS into people’s houses safely. He argues that it is deployable, simple and safe, that there is considerable patient demand for it, and that we need to stop people resorting to home-made kits, as even low-intensity stimulation can cause harm when applied with bad technology.

The numbers Bikson quotes are persuasive: 40,000 tDCS sessions have taken place over the past 15 years, with no serious adverse effects documented in nearly 1,000 studies published.

He suggests some ways to regulate over-the-counter devices: single-use electrodes, single-position headgear, or one dose stored on a single physical module. A code that ­unlocks the device could act like a safety lid on a bottle of Calpol.

Finally, Bikson advocates making tDCS freely available in the interests of science. As Davis says, “No one wants to stop people innovating: it’s how things happen. But you’ve got to think about people’s safety.”

For people who want to try tDCS, such as the musician St Vincent, who tweeted in December that all she wanted for Christmas was a tDCS machine, how close is this to reality? “That ship has sailed. It’s just a case of accelerating it,” says Bikson. “People have to get used to the idea of using electricity instead of pills.”

The Thync System, which went on the market in June, might be the first big step. It doesn’t make medical claims: it’s a cognitive enhancement tool (costing $299) that promises “to deliver pulsed neurostimulation waveforms to modulate psychophysiological arousal for lifestyle or wellness applications”. The manufacturers are quite cagey with information but say the devices “use neuro-signalling to induce shifts in ­energy and calm states within minutes”. Bikson is a product adviser and a fan, though he struggles to find the words to describe Thync’s effects: “It’s not how coffee or wine makes us feel, it’s the way electricity makes us feel.”

Although tDCS is already being used in a couple of private hospitals in the United States it won’t be available on ­prescription from your GP yet. NICE, the UK health regulator, is developing guidance on its use for depression; two pivotal multi-centre trials for treating depression with tDCS are also under way.

The two recurring themes in my conversations with scientists are optimism about tDCS as a tool for treatment, on the one hand, and concern about people experimenting at home on the other. Davis is wary of the activity of DIY enthusiasts. “It’s dangerous,” he says, “but they tend to know it’s dangerous.” Contributors to the busy DIY tDCS forum on Reddit, a bulletin-board-type website, discuss recent studies and share personal experiences and tips about which “montages” – how the electrodes are positioned – to use. That way, you can stimulate the specific parts of the brain governing anything from numerical reasoning and improved socialisation to migraine pain and the reduction of cravings. It is mainly a practical forum for individual users. “Best electrode to avoid skin burn?” is a typical query.




I visit a hackspace in east London to meet Andrew Vladimirov, a Russian neuroscientist who runs a computer security business. He’s a member of Brain Hackers, a group of neuroscientists, electronics engineers and hobbyists. It is a step up from the Reddit DIYers; this group strives to enhance the field of neurostimulation and make it available to others.

There’s an old arcade game in one corner and a tuck shop selling penny sweets and Space Raiders crisps, next to an area filled with brewing apparatus. Experts and amateurs interested in hacking, gaming, science, technology and innovation mill around surrounded by sewing machines, 3D-printed octopuses and other animals, Rubik’s Cubes, lab coats, old computers, new computers and a laser cutting machine. Outside, guys fly drones next to a caravan for “Robotics”. The bookshelves read like poetry: Practical Ruby Projects, Drupal, The Definitive Guide to Grails, The Klingon Dictionary, In Code.

Soon after Vladimirov arrives it becomes clear that he views tDCS as boring and is more interested in other ways of altering the brain, such as magnetic fields, lasers, ultrasound and alternating current. He seeks to measure brain activity simultaneously through electroencephalographic (EEG) devices, including the readily available, consumer-friendly Muse and MindWave, as well as more hackish, DIY headgear.

There is talk of nootropics (smart drugs). Vladimirov wears a locket-type container around his neck containing a couple of doses of piracetam for emergencies. Like many others in London’s DIY neurostimulation community, he is a transhumanist: one who strives to enhance human life with science, health research, technology and innovation.

I ask Vladimirov if I can try something and he applies a combination of transcranial, pulsed magnetic-field and laser stimulation at alpha-band frequency to the back of my head for ten minutes. He is using a machine produced by a friend in Ukraine (where this device is apparently used to treat depression and anxiety). Afterwards, my vision seems slightly sharper and I have a bit more energy; but I am paranoid I’ve damaged my brain.

We talk about safety and Vladimirov allows that it would be possible to get into a state you didn’t want to be in – say, highly alert, or very mellow – and not be able to get out. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to buy a kit on the internet. Later, I have strange dreams. I feel nauseous for the rest of the evening and the next day, though this could be from something I ate.

I catch up on the tDCS Reddit and find a plea from a bipolar patient desperate to find a montage to help him study psychology: “I read a post here, of a guy who used tDCS day before exam, couldn’t study earlier because his grandpa passed away or something. Anyway. He aced on the tests. Tried finding it to know what montage he used. Can’t find it,” he says, asking for a “partner in this journey”.

Various users offer advice, and then there’s a breakthrough. “Hey, that’s me!” says the guy whose grandfather’s illness caused him to miss classes. It turns out he’s J D Leadam, the 25-year-old chief executive of Neurolectrics and creator of the Brain Stimulator – the machine used by, among others, Lee and Katie in Leeds. He gives details of the montage he uses and links out to his own Brain Stimulator site.

In a way, Leadam the young entrepreneur, Bikson the eminent scientist and Vladimirov the hackspace pioneer are all coming from the same place: if we can improve the brain, why shouldn’t we?

This article is published simultaneously in the “Brain” season of The Long + Short, Nesta’s free online magazine of ideas and innovation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Enough to educate 17 million children: the true cost of Brazil’s Car Wash scandal

As a new Netflix series dramatises one of the world’s largest corruption cases, Global Witness puts a figure on the cost of the scandal.

In the 1980s, Alberto Youssef was, alongside an older sister, smuggling whisky and electronic products from Paraguay to Brazil. Once, while being chased at a high-speed by police, VCRs kept falling out of the pick-up truck he was driving. Few would have guessed that this almost comical character would, one day, become a key player in what has been called the biggest corruption scandal in history. But then, the Car Wash, or as it’s known in Portuguese, Lava Jato, stretched far and wide across Brazil at a huge cost.

New research by Global Witness shows the damage caused by the Car Wash scandal far exceeds the sums stolen. The cost to the Brazilian treasury may be nearly eight times higher than the £1.4bn actually taken, enough to cover the salaries of more than a million nurses or provide a year’s education for over 17 million children.

Police only began to uncover the extent of the Car Wash scandal in 2013, when they became suspicious about the sheer quantity of cash churning through a bureau de change in a humble petrol station in the country's capital Brasilia. That led to the arrest of Youssef, which in turn led to further arrests. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary money laundering operation. Police had stumbled upon a racket that would involve at least 28 major corporations and 20 political parties, resulting in over 100 convictions. The list of those implicated reads like a Who’s Who of the Brazilian political elite, including two of the country's presidents.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been sentenced to more than 12 years, after it emerged he took bribes for helping a construction company win contracts with Petrobras. Lula says the case is politically motivated and remains free while appealing it. A ruling in a federal court on Monday, however, could send him behind bars, even as he takes the case to the Supreme Court.

Current president Michel Temer has also been at the centre of corruption investigations, most recently over allegations of bribery concerning a deal for operating services at the Port of Santos, Latin America’s largest container port. Congress has twice blocked Temer from standing trial on corruption charges while in office, and he denies the allegations.

The scandal has also inspired The Mechanism, a new Netflix drama from the director behind the biopic of Pablo Escobar, Narcos. The sums of money involved in Car Wash were almost at Escobar levels, but the billions lost to Brazil’s hard-pressed public services mean the scam might also have caused harm on a scale comparable to the druglord’s activities.

The fraud revolved around Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company. Instead of awarding huge contracts for construction projects, oil rigs, shipping and so on in the normal manner, the work was rotated around a cartel of companies in orderly fashion. Petrobras would over-pay the companies by at least 3 per cent, with the extra money forming a kickback to the directors responsible for awarding them the contracts. These directors would pocket some of the money, and hand the rest to the politicians who had appointed them to their lucrative posts. The money then went to the campaigns of Brazil’s political parties and provided backdoor funds that kept otherwise unstable governing coalitions together.

The result was a Byzantine racket of astonishing intricacy and scale in which everyone took a cut. Bribes came in the form of bricks of cash, expensive art works, aircraft and yachts; anonymously-owned companies in tax havens and foreign bank accounts helped launder the loot. One Petrobras director alone channelled €20m to banks in Monaco from accounts in the Bahamas, Panama and elsewhere.

“Once the mechanism is established, only the corrupt can take part,” says José Padilha, the Brazilian writer and director of The Mechanism. “If you’re an honest politician you’re doomed. The honest businessman will not get any contracts. There are only crooks.”

This “mechanism” had been running uninterrupted for at least 12 years.

Was this really the biggest corruption scandal of all time? Virtually every Car Wash explainer in the UK press poses the question – but none provides an answer. That’s probably because it’s notoriously hard to quantify value throughout history. In 193 AD, the Roman Praetorian Guard assassinated their emperor and held a fraudulent auction to appoint his successor, striking a deal worth 250 pieces of gold for each soldier in the army. (The empire was not theirs to sell). If not the earliest documented fraud, it was surely the most audacious – but trying to convert the ransom into modern currency is a fool’s errand.

But Padhila has no doubt. “It’s the biggest corruption scandal in the history of mankind,” he says. “It involves a mechanism which has been operating in Brazil in one form or another since at least the Eighties. Too many Brazilians fall into the trap of ideology, but the mechanism has no ideology. It is left wing and right wing. The whole political system is corrupted. Democracy has failed.”

Regardless of whether Car Wash is the biggest bribery case of all time, it certainly features in the ranks of the world’s corruption mega-scandals, sitting alongside mammoth state-thieving operations such as Malaysia’s recent “1MDB scandal” – US lawsuits claim an estimated $4.5bn has gone missing from a state development fund – and France’s Elf scandal, which shook the body politic and in which at least $400m was creamed off international oil contracts. All these scandals were linked to illicit political funding.

Taking a look at the cost of Car Wash to Brazil, first off there is the amount filched from the state oil company in improper payments. A Federal Police report seen by Global Witness conservatively estimates this at £1.4bn – all of which had to be laundered, sometimes moved physically. To put this logistical feat in context, if withdrawn in £10 notes the sum would make a stack eight miles high equivalent to almost 16 Burj Khalifas, the tallest building in the world (or, if you like, 343 Christ the Redeemers). The 119 tonnes of cash would take a fleet of 97 Ford Transit vans to deliver.

Then there is the £2.1bn fine Petrobras has agreed to settle a US investors’ class action, already bigger than the amount actually stolen. But both the theft and the losses are dwarfed by (and reflected in) the collapse in Petrobras’s share price. Before the scandal broke in September 2014, shares were at $19.33 but as of March 2018 they had dropped to $14.07. The government suffered a paper loss of £14.1bn for its 29 per cent stake in the company.

September 2014 was also the moment that global oil prices began a long decline, but the damage was too great for Petrobras to hide. “I would say 90 per cent of the fall in share price is due to Car Wash,” says Tiago Cavalcanti, a Brazilian economist at the University of Cambridge.

Petrobras’s 3.7 billion shares are supposed to furnish Brazil with a healthy income, and in the three years before Car Wash exploded, they provided Brazil with an average annual dividend of £360m. No dividend was paid in 2015, 2016 or 2017, costing the country £1.1bn.

Then comes the kicker. So vast was the upheaval  with billions slashed in investment   that some believe it helped bring about the worst recession in Brazil since records began. In March 2014, when the first Car Wash arrests were made, the Brazilian unemployment rate was 7.1 per cent. By last summer it was at 13 per cent. São Paulo consultancy GO Associados, headed by economist Gesner Oliveira, calculated that the fallout from Car Wash hit GDP by 2.5 per cent in each year the investigation was going on, from 2015 to 2017. The consultancy has now told Global Witness it has revised those figures up to an extraordinary 3.6 per cent — which would mean almost the entire drop in output during 2015 and 2016 was accounted for by Car Wash.

GO Associados said that would imply an annual $4.6bn (£3.3bn) in lost tax for each of the three years the fallout from Car Wash was at its most extreme £9.9bn. This figure would appear to be on the conservative side: it is based on the hit to the economy from Petrobras’s reduction in spending plans  but does not take into account the wider impact on Brazil’s giant construction companies, many of which lost contracts elsewhere in Latin America as a result of the scandal. Such firms were also banned from any public contracts in Brazil. The figure also fails to include the reduction in foreign investment in Brazil as a result of the political turmoil.

So even setting aside Brazil’s paper loss – Petrobras shares may well continue to rise  Lava Jato could have cost the government at least £11bn in revenue in lost tax and lost dividends from its stake in the company. That’s almost eight times the amount stolen from Petrobras in the first place.

“That number sounds very plausible and the calculation is logical,” says Cavalcanti, who has himself calculated that without Car Wash and other governmental policies Brazilian GDP would have grown by 1.2 per cent in 2015 and 2016 (as opposed to an actual fall of 3.8 per cent and 3.6 per cent). “Another reason for the recession was the falling price of commodities, but Peru and Chile did not have the fall Brazil had. Certainly Car Wash was a very big factor in the recession.”

Who knows the real difference that £11bn could have made in a country where universal healthcare is still some way off and about 7 per cent remain illiterate. The real price of Car Wash is incalculable.

“I feel disgust and exasperation,” says Padilha.

You might think that at such terrible cost, the Brazilian public would rather the fraud had never been exposed. But a recent poll suggests 94 per cent of Brazilians think the investigations should continue despite the current turmoil. For many, this is a golden opportunity to tackle the corruption that has afflicted the Brazilian body politic for decades before the mechanism started turning.

Because according to the filmmaker, Petrobras is the tip of the iceberg.

“There is no public contract in any village, town, city or state that is not affected, from the tiniest new road to the biggest government project,” he says. “All are corrupted - and none of this is exposed yet. In my country you can turn any stone and there will be cockroaches underneath.”

Ed Davey is an investigative journalist for Global Witness.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2