What is tES? People Are Zapping Their Brains to Be More Creative

Art Class
Young children work on a paint project. People are using transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) devices to enhance creativity—but the supervision of a doctor is emphasized and modifying the device is to be avoided. CHRIS HONDROS/GETTY IMAGES

People are using transcranial electrical stimulation devices to enhance creativity—even without the supervision of a doctor.

Researchers at Georgetown University studied the at-home use of these devices and what it could mean for the future of the technology. Published Tuesday in Creativity Research Journal, the study explained there could be concerns with at-home use, especially with children.

Transcranial electrical stimulation, or tES, is when low-voltage constant or alternating currents of electricity are sent to the brain through electrodes on the scalp, according to a 2017 study published in Cell Biology. The currents are supposed to interact with neural processing, synchronize brain networks and modify plasticity in the brain. Because of this, the technology could change behavior and treat a number of conditions.

"It's a technology that's relatively new but also increasing in interest, popularity and use," James Giordano, professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry and chief of the neuroethics studies program at Georgetown University Medical Center, told Newsweek. Giordano is the study's senior author. "At present, it is being used in certain clinical applications, like the treatment of anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorders. It's being used for neurological reconditioning after stroke; it's also being used to treat certain forms of depression and certain forms of chronic pain." Performance on specific tasks could also be improved with tES.

Giordano has in the past conducted research to determine if the technology could help bolster creativity and found that it could. Even though creativity is hard to measure, scientists were able to use neuroimaging to identify increased creativity in the brain. However, the direct-to-consumer models, which someone could buy online, even on Amazon, are not at the same voltage levels as the models that a physician would use with a patient or Giordano would use in the lab.

"Transcranial electrical stimulation is very safe at all delivery doses that are characteristically used in clinical practice," Giordano said. "Where it can become problematic is if these devices are misused. They're not being used appropriately if the devices are modified so as to change the dose symmetry."

Giordano warns against people using them around water, such as in the tub or shower, and against using them for extended periods of time, such as when they're sleeping. Some people have used more than one device at a time in the direct-to-consumer market or people have built their own devices incorrectly and as a result, developed electrical burns.

The use of the devices with children, whose brains are still developing, is where Giordano remained the most concerned. He explained the device should only be used under the supervision of a physician when children are involved. "Parents have good intentions, but I think very often good intentions fall victim to something that could be called microwave mentality," Giordano said. "This is not going to produce immediate results, nor do we recognize it as more is better. In this particular case, a little is very good, more is not necessarily going to be better."