It’s shocking – How the press are hyping the benefits of electrical brain stimulation

A commercially available tDCS device

There is a “rising tide” of hype regarding the potential benefits of weak electrical stimulation of the human brain. That’s according to a trio of Canadian neuroscientists writing in the journal Neuron.

Veljko Dubljević and his colleagues performed literature searches on mentions of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in the academic and mainstream print media. tDCS involves the application of weak electrical current to the scalp, with the aim of altering neuronal function. There have been numerous recent reports of this practice leading to forms of cognitive enhancement – however, it’s possible there are detrimental drawbacks and the long-term consequences are unknown.

Dubljević and his team found that research and media coverage of tDCS has increased dramatically since 2006. There were over 250 academic papers published on the technique in 2013 (up to October of that year), compared with fewer than 25 in 2006. Similarly, they identified nearly 70 mainstream media articles in 2013 (up to October), compared with fewer than 10 in 2006.

They also noted the way the media has focused disproportionately and uncritically on the cognitive enhancement potential of tDCS. Whereas the majority (45 per cent) of academic studies are on therapeutic uses of the technique, such as to treat depression (versus just 13 per cent on enhancement), the media focused as much on enhancement (42 per cent) as on therapeutic uses (42 per cent). Typical headlines include “A tiny zap to improve memory” (The Philadelphia Inquirer) and “Jump start your brain” (Boston Magazine).

And while the scholarly press often included caveats and warnings about side-effects, these were rarely mentioned in the popular press. Instead, the media coverage tended to include “misleading statements” and to “sensationalise” the capabilities of tDCS. Reportage on electrical brain stimulation was also often accompanied by the perpetuation of brain myths, such as the idea that we only use 10 per cent of our brain power.

Dubljević and his colleagues call on professional societies, government bodies, researchers and science writers to do more to inform the public about the safety concerns regarding tDCS, to explain better the mechanisms of action (many of which are not fully understood), and to present a more realistic picture of the likely benefits. This is especially urgent, they argue, given the lack of regulation of tDCS devices, and their increasingly widespread availability.

“Given the rapid evolution of tDCS in the public domain and in academia, tackling its social, ethical, and policy implications requires a multifaceted response,” they said.


Dubljević, V., Saigle, V., & Racine, E. (2014). The Rising Tide of tDCS in the Media and Academic Literature Neuron, 82 (4), 731-736 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.05.003

–further reading–
Read this before zapping your brain
The age of the superhuman

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

6 thoughts on “It’s shocking – How the press are hyping the benefits of electrical brain stimulation”

  1. People in the medical world chose their career because they want to help people. When they get into their fields the reality sets and they realized its not so pretty sometimes. I understand if nurses and medical professionals look at patients as non human to get through their day.

  2. I am a nurse and when I first started nursing can remember distancing myself from patients emotionally (particularly children) in order to cope with the sheer difficulty of observing pain and the helplessness that comes with that. However, as I came more experienced and trained I learn't to cope with it and reframe the experience of nursing sick and dying patients, for example, by contributing to a lovely end of life for the patient and the long term effect this will have on their family rather than focus on the unfairness of their situation. The biopsychosocial approach is taught in nursing and encourages us to have an emotional attachment to our patients in order to care, this can only work if nurses have the resources to do this, when we haven't survival kicks in and the stress response takes over when we can see that our patients are not getting the standard of care that they should and the only option left is to distance ourselves from the patient in order to mitigate the guilt that we feel.

  3. I think that people who deal with human misfortune in general have to objectify those people rather than dehumanize them. We identify them as humans, we just don't identify with them personally in the process.

  4. I am an ex nurse and have considerable sympathy with people who work a whole day close up with death, dying, suffering, faeces and the rest. I think some degree of distancing (or habituation) is inevitable and there will also be some individual variation about how this occurs. I am reminded of Carlo Schuenguel's work using video feedback in LD. The carers who had a stable attachment style benefited little from the training. The staff with an dismissing or preoccupied styles improved in their communication skills, becoming more sensitive and responding more appropriately.
    (Schuengel et al Attachment & Human Development, 14,2, 2012, 83-99)
    Also, there was a qualitative observational study of midwives by McRea et al 1998, Midwifery, 14, 174-80 which identified three different styles of relating to patients. In this study the authors stressed that these were styles, not personal dispositions. Midwives showed different ways of relating to different mothers to be.
    I have requested the full Trifiletti study and look forward to reading it through.

  5. I worked for a time caring for children with leukemia and my coping strategy was the very opposite of that reported in this study. I not only humanized the children I was caring for, I looked for what was unique to each one and them special.
    One little baby girl was a fighter, coming to our Hem-Onc unit to be treated for a rare form of leukemia only after a six-week battle in the ICU. She now runs several nail salons. A little four-year-old boy was extraordinarily kind to staff. After he died, twenty-four nurses attended his memorial service. No one would ever forget little Binky.
    I dealt with my feelings by reminding myself that, compared to what these kids were going through, nothing that happened to me mattered. “I'm not three years old and dying,” I would say. I fought to give those children the best possible chance at life and, when that wasn't possible, to give them the very best death possible. I always did my best and left the results to God.
    It wasn't those sick and dying kids that stressed me out. It was hospital politics, particular an unfair and critical attitude by the administration that set nurses at war with nurses. You might even say that this nurse stress was the result of their being dehumanized by the hospital's administration. I have written about that in a most realistic and honest book.
    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

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