Bioethics Blogs

Is Another Mass-Market tDCS Device Imminent?

Roland Nadler, SLS, ’15

One of the most important developments in the history of transcranial direct current stimulation (a non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement technology I have covered in previous posts) has been the advent of commercially available brain stimulation devices.  The most widely used mass-market device is foc.us, which is advertised as a brain-boosting device for competitive video gaming.  A forthcoming empirical study from one of my Stanford Law colleagues has found that the practice of do-it-yourself brain stimulation changed significantly when foc.us became available.  No surprise — many curious would-be brain-zappers, suddenly spared the challenge of tinkering together a homemade tDCS device, were suddenly provided with the opportunity to purchase one ready-made.  An influx of neophyte users to online DIY communities followed.

We might be poised for another such influx.  Businessweek has reported that a startup with the so-Silicon-Valley-it-hurts moniker Thync has drummed up $13 million in venture capital funding (from the firm of notorious and legally beleaguered beach-blockading tycoon Vinod Khosla).  Their goal?  To bring a tDCS device to market for end-users within a year.  Now, $13 million may sound like hardly a sneeze here in the Valley’s biotech sector, but as capital for medical technology goes, it is substantial.  Given the well-established nature of the underlying technology, I do not think there is much reason to doubt that Thync will deliver on its promise to create and sell this product.

The interesting question, from my perspective, is what will result from the arrival of a new player in the direct-to-consumer tDCS space.  For one thing, foc.us may be in for a sales dip.  It has never been all that clear how many people actually purchase it for the specific use that the company has in mind — I certainly haven’t seen any League of Legends pros wearing the telltale crown to get juiced on sweet, sweet voltage (though every time I play I suspect the entire opposing team is illicitly amped).  Probably much of the purchasing behavior springs from less recreational cognitive enhancement aspirations.  With a device more explicitly targeting the general enhancement market, foc.us will have to adapt or dig deeper for its niche market.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.