Non-invasive brain stimulation and neuroenhancement

Clin Neurophysiol Pract. 2022 May 25:7:146-165. doi: 10.1016/j.cnp.2022.05.002. eCollection 2022.


Attempts to enhance human memory and learning ability have a long tradition in science. This topic has recently gained substantial attention because of the increasing percentage of older individuals worldwide and the predicted rise of age-associated cognitive decline in brain functions. Transcranial brain stimulation methods, such as transcranial magnetic (TMS) and transcranial electric (tES) stimulation, have been extensively used in an effort to improve cognitive functions in humans. Here we summarize the available data on low-intensity tES for this purpose, in comparison to repetitive TMS and some pharmacological agents, such as caffeine and nicotine. There is no single area in the brain stimulation field in which only positive outcomes have been reported. For self-directed tES devices, how to restrict variability with regard to efficacy is an essential aspect of device design and function. As with any technique, reproducible outcomes depend on the equipment and how well this is matched to the experience and skill of the operator. For self-administered non-invasive brain stimulation, this requires device designs that rigorously incorporate human operator factors. The wide parameter space of non-invasive brain stimulation, including dose (e.g., duration, intensity (current density), number of repetitions), inclusion/exclusion (e.g., subject's age), and homeostatic effects, administration of tasks before and during stimulation, and, most importantly, placebo or nocebo effects, have to be taken into account. The outcomes of stimulation are expected to depend on these parameters and should be strictly controlled. The consensus among experts is that low-intensity tES is safe as long as tested and accepted protocols (including, for example, dose, inclusion/exclusion) are followed and devices are used which follow established engineering risk-management procedures. Devices and protocols that allow stimulation outside these parameters cannot claim to be "safe" where they are applying stimulation beyond that examined in published studies that also investigated potential side effects. Brain stimulation devices marketed for consumer use are distinct from medical devices because they do not make medical claims and are therefore not necessarily subject to the same level of regulation as medical devices (i.e., by government agencies tasked with regulating medical devices). Manufacturers must follow ethical and best practices in marketing tES stimulators, including not misleading users by referencing effects from human trials using devices and protocols not similar to theirs.

Keywords: AD, Alzheimer’s Disease; BDNF, brain derived neurotrophic factor; Cognitive enhancement; DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; DIY stimulation; DIY, Do-It-Yourself; DLPFC, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; EEG, electroencephalography; EMG, electromyography; FCC, Federal Communications Commission; FDA, (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration; Home-stimulation; IFCN, International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology; LTD, long-term depression; LTP, long-term potentiation; MCI, mild cognitive impairment; MDD, Medical Device Directive; MDR, Medical Device Regulation; MEP, motor evoked potential; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; NIBS, noninvasive brain stimulation; Neuroenhancement; OTC, Over-The-Counter; PAS, paired associative stimulation; PET, positron emission tomography; PPC, posterior parietal cortex; QPS, quadripulse stimulation; RMT, resting motor threshold; SAE, serious adverse event; SMA, supplementary motor cortex; TBS, theta-burst stimulation; TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation; Transcranial brain stimulation; rTMS, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation; tACS; tACS, transcranial alternating current stimulation; tDCS; tDCS, transcranial direct current stimulation; tES, transcranial electric stimulation; tRNS, transcranial random noise stimulation.

Publication types

  • Review