DIY Electric Brain Stimulation

electric shock

Many years ago when I was just a teenager, I came across an interesting machine. It was supposed to tone your muscles while you sit on the sofa eating crisps and drinking tea, by using electric current. Easy to use, just plug the leads into the box, attach the pads to the skin using elasticated bands, and pass the current through your leg muscles. You feel a little twitch, the muscle flinches maybe and somehow is exercised.

Well I of course didn’t need to lose weight or build up my muscles, I weighed 68 kilos, but I had the very thought that any teenage adventurer home scientist idiot would have, “I wonder what it does if you stick it on your head?”

Unfortunately my experiments were soon discovered and the offending article was removed (the machine, not my brain or sense of experimentation) which is a shame, because if not I would today be considered a pioneer, the father figure of the growing DIY brain stimulation movement.

I do not want to suggest that anyone should try it at home, but the movement for self brain stimulation is on a roll. I won’t include any links but you can discover how to build your own stimulator and where to place it either using text, photos or videos easily and freely available online. The small army of practitioners are conducting experiments upon their own brains, circulating their findings and claim real results.

Although these results are anecdotal (not totally “scientific”) users claim that their capacities for mathematics have improved, problems of depression have been lightened, memory is better and that chronic pain can be relieved.

This week the Journal Science News carries an article about the movement, and a couple of months ago WIRED also addressed the problem, and I would like to raise a few issues to add to their arguments.

We might think that it may not be a good idea to conduct such experiments upon ourselves without any expert help, but the people who have had their lives improved through these actions would not agree. Experimentation in this field goes back many years, far longer than you would imagine (in the 11th Century experiments included using electric catfish and other charge generating fish were proposed to treat patients, rays placed on people’s heads etc), and many of the practitioners today are doctors. There is even a commercially available set up that is marketed to gamers, as one finding suggests that the use improves their playing capacity.

This field in some way reflects the path of home treatment using non prescribed drugs in cases of cancer. Many groups exist that experimentally treat themselves with medication that has either not been approved, trialled correctly or is not commercially available for other reasons. If these trials are reported correctly the information they produce becomes important data, and we tend to find that people report extremely well when they are talking about their own bodies and choose their own treatment. And trials of this type may not be possible (or wanted) under the control of drugs companies or research organizations.

So there are obvious ethical issues to take into account, including issues of trust, reliability, risk, responsibility, legal implications and the list goes on, but people will always experiment. According to Doctor Who that is why the human race is what it is, why it is so wonderful.

Once again I find myself thinking about the enhancement problem and its series of fine lines, ideas of the democratization of medicine flow in, and we must not forget how much science is done in this way and how much good comes out of ad-hoc garage experimentation. Do you know what Benjamin Franklin did with a kite and a key in a lightening storm?

Designing a Better World

Last year I wrote a post about a baby incubator made from car parts, built here in Boston by not-for-profit organization Design that Matters. The incubator uses car parts because they are easy to find practically anywhere in the world.

One of the problems with baby incubators and other pieces of technology used in hospitals is that they are often abandoned once they break down because access to the parts is difficult. In many cases it just needs a fuse to go that cannot be locally sourced and a hugely expensive machine becomes unuseable.

The car parts incubator hopes to avoid this problem. Read more in the post here.

Readers will be glad to hear that the Design That Matters organization have been named as finalists in Fast Company magazine’s Innovation by Design Awards. They appear in the category of Social Good, and that really represents the philosophy of the organization.

Project Firefly

Project Firefly

This year they have received numerous awards and special mentions for their Project Firefly, a safe, robust and inexpensive tool to provide infant phototherapy and warming for otherwise healthy newborns at risk of developing hyperbilirubinemia (leading to jaundice) and hypothermia.

Design that Matters (DtM), the East Meets West Foundation (EMW) and Vietnamese manufacturer MTTS have launched a collaboration to develop the device. It is hoped that the product could save hundreds of thousands of babies from disability or death through jaundice related complications.

I believe that design really could improve the world. We might think about some relatively inexpensive technological idea that can improve life for many people. In an article I also wrote last year on the Bassetti Foundation website I mentioned the Microsoft Imagine Cup, a competition organized to promote and support such ideas.

Many great ideas come through design schools. One example is the liter of light project started at MIT. Plastic bottles are used to reflect light into dark rooms by being placed in the roof. They run on water, bleach and sunlight, and have brought light into thousands of homes. Check out the video on the post linked above.

A Liter of Light in use

A Liter of Light in use

One fantastic source of “design to save the world” is the website Inhabitat. This site contains posts submitted by its editorial staff and readers that bring such projects to the public eye. They have a newsletter, and there is something for everyone, from technology, to architecture and an entire section for kids.

Really educational, interesting and fun, and maybe you will get a world improving idea yourself.

Sequencing Baby DNA, a Project in Boston

Last week the Science in Mind blog on my local Boston.com website ran an interesting story that is definitely worthy of reflection. It involves 2 local hospitals that are carrying out a project funded by the National Institute of Health (USA). The projects involve sequencing the DNA of newly born babies over the next 5 years. Read all about it here.

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Now sequencing the DNA of babies carries with it several risks and ethical concerns, as well as well argued benefits. If we take the benefits first, doctors may gain information about a baby, such as high risk for a certain disease, genetic mutations that may require changes of lifestyle etc. They might also find explanations for problems that might otherwise go undetected.

There are though as I say risks and concerns. How will parents react if they discover that their baby has a high risk of an incurable disease? How will the knowledge gained through the test effect the way the parents view and behave towards their children? Are we giving families information that will change their understanding of parenting to such a degree that it might destroy the very fabric of their social relationships?

This is not to mention the social implications of giving out such information regarding extended family. If for example I am told that my baby has a genetic mutation carried by the parents that might have a serious effect on its life, should I tell my brothers and cousins so that they can screen their prospective wives, make decisions about having children or even worse a pregnancy already in course? And not to mention the obvious problem of discovering that the father is not the man stood in the room with the mother.

These problems are in fact the issues that the researchers running the project are hoping to look into. The question is if the clinical benefits outweigh the risks of such an approach.

I have written a lot about this subject in recent years if you would like more to read:

In June of last year I wrote a post here on Technology Bloggers called Sequencing the Genome of Unborn Babies. I also raised a lot of similar ethical concerns in May of the same year in Home Genetic Testing, Pros and Cons.

On the Bassetti Foundation we find DNA Privacy Issues from January of this year, a series called Architectures for Life from 2012 and a review of a book called Go Ask Your Father, just for starters.

My own personal view is that much of the promise peddled to us surrounding medicine and the sequencing of the human genome has yet to be delivered. One problem is money. Personalized medicine sounds like a great idea. I get my genome sequenced, we can see which drugs might work the best, the type of treatment I need etc. But drug companies cannot make, test and market a drug especially for me even with all of this information, it is just not cost effective. They want big sellers, generic medicines that work to some extent on everybody, not something that is fantastic for me with my particular gene pool.

There are clinical benefits, I am not arguing otherwise, but we must wait to see how great.

Robotic Surgical Techniques

This weekend I had a very interesting experience. I tried out a few million dollar’s worth of robotic surgery equipment.

The Davinci Robotic Surgery Machine

The da Vinci Robotic Surgery Machine

The system I tried out was designed and built by da Vinci Surgery, and is in use at the Brigham and Women’s hospital here in Massachusetts. The hospital states that over 600 operations have been carried out since 2007 when the technology was introduced without need for further more invasive interventions or serious damage to any patient.

Imagine that you sit in front of a 3 dimensional image and control robotic arms with your own arm and finger movement. The arms are about as thick as pencils, and as there are 4 arms on each robot two surgeons can work together.

The hand controls feature finger grips

Hand controls

The great advantage is that instead of having to make a large cut so that the doctors can get their hands in, the robot makes 5 tiny cuts for the arms to pass through. There is a camera so the surgeons can see inside and they can proceed at a safe distance.

Healing time is cut down, less blood loss, less possibility of infection, less post operative pain and very little scarring, there are many advantages to this type of approach. The machinery is very easy to use. My 7 year old son could take tiny elastic bands off a test bed and place them round objects about the size of the end of my little finger, at a distance of 3 metres!

One issue is however that some people are dubious about a surgeon operating using this type of machinery, they might feel that a hand is better then a robotic arm. Having used one (not on a patient I grant you) I personally would not have any problem accepting a procedure of this type.

Robotic surgery makes us think of computerized machinery with Kraftwerk type movement and voices, but this machinery is nothing of the sort. It handles like an extension of your own body, the movement is very real and precise and in some ways the robotic arm is easier to manipulate than a human counterpart. It can turn 360 degrees upon itself, has full rotation capability and the magnification makes the process seem easier. I was shocked when I saw how small the area was that we were working on.

A training program was also on display, a series of tests to improve performance and present each operator with a score. A skilled operator can tie a knot in a piece of string or link tiny elastic bands together that would be extremely tricky using human fingers.

Below I have a series of photos and here is a link to a video showing an actual procedure so stop reading here and skip straight to the comments section if you don’t want to see them.

A Dummy Up

A dummy shows entrance

Robotic Surgery

Robotic surgery in action