Could Brain Stimulation replace Caffeine? / by David Myers

Describe your morning routine, I can almost guarantee that at some point it includes a cup of coffee. In fact, I am about 83 percent sure it does. A recent online survey by the National Coffee Association found that 83% of Americans drink at least one cup of coffee per day.[1] Maybe you drink coffee to wake up, to improve your focus, stay alert, or maybe just to be functional for the day ahead.

            The problem with caffeine is feeling jittery, the crash after, and most of all its addictive potential. Additionally, due to a build-up of tolerance, often more and more caffeine is required to induce the same effect (just ask any commercial trucker or daily Starbucks customer). Caffeine is actually the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world.[2] Energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster, and to a certain extent 5 Hour Energy have become a potent and commonplace addition to the diets of many to maintain their caffeine needs. People are always looking for more efficient, portable, and effective ways to consume caffeine. 5 Hour Energy, for example, advertises that there is “no crash later.” However, anyone that has tried it knows that, while there is less of a crash later than a cup of coffee, the phrase “no crash later” is too good to be true.

            There is a new emerging technology that may be able to make this same claim and be able to back it up. Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation or tDCS, is a new technique that places electrodes over specific regions of the brain and runs a low voltage electric current between them. Doing so temporarily alters the threshold at which a neuron will fire. This neuromodulation boasts and impressive list of potential applications including an improvement in focus and attention, often termed ‘vigilance’ in the scientific literature. So could brain stimulation replace caffeine?  The potential for tDCS to supplement or even replace caffeine is a compelling idea.  A recent study published in the journal Brain Stimulation directly compared the effects of caffeine and tDCS.  The sham (placebo) controlled study demonstrated that the application of tDCS led to a better subjective rating for the improvement of fatigue, drowsiness and mood. [3]  The authors of the study even suggested that, due to its prolonged effects on mood and performance, tDCS actually outperformed caffeine.

                So now you might be thinking, “Ok awesome, but is there really no crash later?”.   tDCS is a new field that is still being researched but all nearly previous research demonstrates a unique aftereffect of this form of non-invasive brain stimulation.  A single short session of tDCS can create an aftereffect lasting up to 24 hours later in some cases. [4]  Again, this research is preliminary but a study published in the journal Neuroimage suggests that tDCS induced vigilance results in a net gain of resources rather than a net loss (which is typical of a “crash” from caffeine). [5] The authors of the paper further concluded that tDCS intervention may be a valuable tool “to mitigate performance degradation in work settings requiring sustained attention”.  It seems that this new technology may be the key to a more efficient and focused workplace.


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