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The science of neurostimulation

Standing on the shoulders of scientists & researchers worldwide, we seek to unleash the power of in-context neurostimulation.



The brain’s natural communication protocol


Your brain is essentially an electrical grid. As you read this, you are producing electrical activity in various brain regions as part of the mental process. Neurostimulators like Plato work by adding a micro-dose of electricity similar to that of the brain’s natural processes. This temporarily changes the type and location of the natural activity. The modulation only influences the already ongoing processes, leaving it unable to add any unnatural activity.

Brain and electrical grid

Plato neurostimulation works by applying two matchstick-box sized electrodes to the surface of the head, sending micro currents from one electrode to the other. Passing through the two electrodes is a constant, low-intensity current that modulates neuronal activity in the underlying areas. The user may determine the strength of that access based on the type of stimuli. Lasting up to 30 minutes, a neurostimulation session has the maximum effect during the session. However, some users report lagging effects hours after the session has ended.

The origins of neurostimulation technology is from medical research, used for purposes such as memory training and rehabilitation for stroke patients. More recently, the technology has been used for pilot education, military training and for professional athletes, amongst other purposes.


Brain and electrical grid


Health and Safety


In correct use neurostimulators like Plato are completely safe to use. Some studies report mild, but transient side effects, primarily skin irritations beneath the electrodes, cognitive discomfort (e.g. moderate fatigue, headache and nausea) and metallic taste in the mouth. Only very few of the 100+ tests of Plato have resulted in skin irritations, sleepiness and, in three instances, mild headache. The best results from neurostimulation studies are from repeated use, thus the only known habituation effect is related to improvement. Based on our own experience, getting captivated by successful neurostimulation is easy, but research shows no signs of challenges related to physical addiction.


Creativity skills lie at the heart of innovation


Creativity
At Plato we are experts on creativity research, and through the Copenhagen Institute of NeuroCreativity we have been working with creativity research and training for nearly a decade. Based on our own and others research on creativity and creative problem solving, we have designed two neurostimulation protocols used in Plato, targeting the two most important aspects of creativity: The ability to think out of the box (Open mode, illustrated to the right) and the ability to assess, filter and select (Close mode, illustrated below).

Divergent thinking

convergent thinking


But what exactly do we mean by creativity? To us, creativity is the most miraculous part of humanity and what separates us from animals. Creativity is the key human skill that keeps evolving us. From mastering fire and a rolling wheel, to electricity and the computer, all human creations departs from this very particular skill of connecting existing knowledge in new and useful ways.

At Plato creativity is not about artistic skills, but the cognitive ability to create new and useful ideas and solutions. In our point of view, creativity is the key to developmental breakthroughs within any field. What is the difference between a good and a groundbreaking mathematician? Creativity, as they both have access to the same information, yet one is able to see solutions that the other cannot. How did David beat Goliath and the Greek capture Troy? It all came from creative thinking.


Testing of Plato
The Plato team is using our prototypes all the time, but more importantly 60+ people – and counting – have tried it in more than 100 sessions. As we are scientists, it has been crucial for us to also do rigorous tests of Plato. This scientific research so far consist of 76 experiments on 39 subjects in a controlled laboratory environment, administrated by neurobiologist Morten Friis-Olivarius.

The studies were performed with Plato prototypes, utilising a form for neurostimulation known as tDCS (transcranial Direct Current Stimulation). The data was collected in two batches (33 sessions on 17 subjects and 43 sessions on 24 subjects), using two different sets of classical cognitive tests designed to capture aspects of creative thinking. Apart from basic device feedback, qualitative feedback and logging of side-effects, the study was analysed to understand how the stimuli affected the research subjects.

The results in terms of the device and side effects were great. Also the qualitative results were very positive, as the subject were able to report the expected cognitive effects despite not being aware of which stimuli they received. Unfortunately, the effect measured by the quantitative tests varied greatly between participants, with some having very strong positive effects while others had little or no effect. This variance is believed to caused by a crucial factor in neurostimulation: individual differences in how people are affected by tDCS.

Individual differences
The Plato team honours transparency and scientific honesty. We will never give the impression that our device is able to do things it cannot: Neurostimulation works, yet it is not magic. It is vital for us to be fully open about what we know and what we do not. The workings of neurostimulation are highly complex and, consequently, predicting the precise effect on an individual is therefore virtually impossible — no matter how many subjects are scientifically studied. Therefore, the individual effect of neurostimulation, like the tDCS used in Plato experiments, may vary.
The reason for this is easy to explain:

Each brain is unique

Through neuroscientific research we collect data, which tells us how the brain functions on average. We then use neurostimulation to recreate brain activity based on that average, which is the effect most people are likely to experience. However, using an average has the same drawback as in any other scientific field: As there are no identical brains, no brain will exactly match the identified average. We are therefore able to predict a range of possible reactions to brain stimulation, while unable to provide an accurate and fully predictable technique. As a result, the more complex cognitive functions that are targeted with neurostimulation, the bigger is the potential impact of the individual differences.

The brain does not consist of concrete areas specifically responsible for a given function. Various areas play different roles at different points during a cognitive process, which together makes up the complex system we refer to as “the brain”. We do not simply turn on and off areas of the brain in order to reach a predefined result.

When applying neurostimulation to the surface of the skull there are three key individual factors that influences the effect of the stimuli. Simply put, these three factors are:

  1. Anatomical differences, as a location on the outside of the skull does not necessarily match the assumed underlying area of the brain
  2. Individual differences in exactly how we all use different areas of the brain for different purposes
  3. Individual differences in exactly how the brain is “folded”. The current induced takes the path of least resistance between the electrodes. This path depends on how the brain is folded

These challenges related to individual differences are in line with what is considered a scientific consensus for neurostimulation. Dr. Flavio Frohlich, another scientist using tDCS neurostimulation, sums up a study by stating:

“This is not a conclusive study saying tDCS does this or that, but it tells us that it is probably more complicated than we initially assumed; that it requires more work to understand under what specific circumstance tDCS enhances, or, perhaps in some circumstance also decreases, cognitive performance” (source)

Crowdscience

A growing amount of scientific research is carried out in an open collaborative fashion known as “citizen science” or simply crowdscience. Crowdscience goes beyond traditionally organised research – from its firm place within universities, government laboratories and R&D departments, to massive distributed research.

For Plato, this means that we are bringing the lab to the user, instead of bringing the user to the lab. Together, we enhance our understanding of the brain and continually refine the neurostimulation technology and features through collective feedback. Hence, crowdscience involves all Plato users, which collectively progresses our shared knowledge.

More about crowdscience

Through our long-term perspectives for crowdscience, we aim at building a platform for neurostimulation users and researchers. In order to accelerate our understanding of neurostimulation, data will be collected, analysed and shared worldwide. For example, for neurostimulation technology to move beyond infancy, it is crucial to gain information on how real-world users benefit from the technology. And no matter how many tests we run in our lab, we still need to know how users adopt our product to their daily and professional life.

The Plato crowdscience will be performed on three levels, advancing gradually as part of the Pioneer Program:

  1. Passive usage data, collecting information about how and when it is used by which type of users
  2. Active reporting, where users will be invited to report the experiences from each session directly in the app, so we can add both qualitative and quantitative data to the passive usage data.
  3. Distributed science, where Plato users will be invited to participate in controlled scientific experiments, using their own device and in the comfort of their own context.

Crowdscience is a tool of mutual aid: The more you share your experiences with Plato, the more knowledge we gain in order to improve the underlying science. And the more we collectively share, the more information is available to improve each user’s experience.

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Frequently asked questions (and answers)


You may have a lot of questions on the Plato system. If you do not find your answer here, please email us with your question.



  • What is neurostimulation and how does it work?

    At Plato we use a version of neurostimulation called TES (Transcranial Electrical Stimulation), a scientific method for painless brain stimulation which uses a micro dose of electrical current to stimulate specific parts of the brain. The main benefits of this method is that it does not puncture the skin and that it cannot force any unwanted activity in the brain, as it can only support the naturally occurring activity. TES is indeed a scientific method, originally developed for medical purposes but more recently frequently applied for non medical purposes. There is no doubt that TES can modulate neural activity and thereby influence the brain activity of subjects. The basic fundament of the method stem from the 60’s and 70’s, but over the last 10-15 years the amount of scientific research into TES has expanded.

    TES is an umbrella term for a wide range of non-invasive brain stimulation methods, and various versions of TES (e.g. tDCS, tACS, tRNS) have been used successfully for a wide range of scientific studies. We are currently utilising a method called tDCS (transcranial Direct Current Stimulation), but will include other versions as part of the Pioneer Program.

  • Are there any medical risks associated with neurostimulation?

    We have experienced that some of our followers are skeptical in terms of medical risks, especially with repeated use of TES. Using brain scanning techniques independent researchers have not been able to find any lasting pathological changes (Iyezr et al., 2005; Nitsche, Niehaus et al., 2004) or other brain injuries (e.g. neuronal injury such as neuron-specific enolase (Nitsche & Paulus, 2001) from TES.

  • What are the typical side effects?

    As with other brain stimulation techniques, some studies and users report minor and rare temporary side effects from neurostimulation like tDCS. Most of the side effects reported in existing studies (for more info see Poreisz et al., 2007) are related to the skin directly under the electrodes include tingling, mild pain, rashes and local itching during stimulation. Some users also report temporal cognitive side effects during and immediately after stimulation which include moderate fatigue, headache and nausea.

  • Can anyone use neurostimulation?

    The current paradigm for TES studies and consumer applications mainly focus on so called ‘healthy adult subjects’, screening users for neurological conditions (e.g. strokes, brain-related diseases and syndromes, brain implants and surgery) and psychiatric diseases or syndromes. These are safety precautions, and not based on any research showing that it would be harmful for any of the screened conditions, but due to the screening used in most of the current studies of TES.

    Furthermore, using TES requires that the skin under the electrodes is ‘whole and not damaged’, leading to further screening participant for hypersensitive skin and/or skin conditions like psoriasis.

  • What are the consequences of incorrect use?

    If TES is used incorrectly, some users have reported other side effects like visual sensations and skin burns. The visual sensations are experienced as brief flashes in the sight and are related to switching the current on and off at full strength, or sudden detachment of the electrodes. Some sources mention skin burns as a risk with TES, but in a recent scientific study using the industry safety norm found it to be safe with regards to skin burns and skin damages when deploying tDCS correctly (Loo et al, 2011). Professional TES devices like Plato are designed specifically to make incorrect use impossible.

  • Can neurostimulation induce psychoses?

    This is a common question we get, but there are no reports of tDCS neurostimulation causing psychosis. On the contrary tDCS has been shown to have beneficial effects on mental conditions such as schizophrenia, and it is currently being investigated whether tDCS can be used as a treatment for such conditions.

  • Can neurostimulation cause epileptic seizures?

    Another common concern we meet is questions regarding the risk for epileptic seizures. In a previous TES study in patients with refractory epilepsy, it did not show an increase in seizures (Fregni, Thome-Souza et al., 2006), and another meta study found no previous examples of TES causing epileptic seizures in humans (Poreisz et al., 2007). In a study of TES effects on rats the researchers even found anti-epileptic effects of the tDCS stimulation used (Liebetanz et al., 2006).

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Recommended reading for curious minds


Scientific papers from researchers studying creativity at the forefront of neurostimulation & cognitive enhancement.




  • Zmigrod, S., Colzato, L. S., & Hommel, B. (2015) Stimulating creativity: modulation of convergent and divergent thinking by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Creativity Research Journal, 27(4), 353-360.
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  • Bourzac, K. (2016) Neurostimulation: Bright sparks. Nature, 531(7592), S6-S8.
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  • Lustenberger, C., Boyle, M. R., Foulser, A. A., Mellin, J. M., & Fröhlich, F. (2015) Functional role of frontal alpha oscillations in creativity. Cortex, 67, 74-82.
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  • Mayseless, N., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2015) Enhancing verbal creativity: Modulating creativity by altering the balance between right and left inferior frontal gyrus with tDCS. Neuroscience, 291, 167-176.
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  • Goel, V., Eimontaite, I., Goel, A., & Schindler, I. (2015) Differential modulation of performance in insight and divergent thinking tasks with tDCS. The Journal of Problem Solving, 8(1), 2.
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  • Green, A. E., Spiegel, K. A., Giangrande, E. J., Weinberger, A. B., Gallagher, N. M., & Turkeltaub, P. E. (2016) Thinking cap plus thinking zap: tDCS of frontopolar cortex improves creative analogical reasoning and facilitates conscious augmentation of state creativity in verb generation. Cerebral Cortex, bhw080.
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  • Cerruti, C., & Schlaug, G. (2009) Anodal transcranial direct current stimulation of the prefrontal cortex enhances complex verbal associative thought. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(10), 1980-1987.
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  • Chi, R. P., & Snyder, A. W. (2011) Facilitate insight by non-invasive brain stimulation. PloS one, 6(2), e16655.
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  • Chi, R. P., & Snyder, A. W. (2012) Brain stimulation enables the solution of an inherently difficult problem. Neuroscience Letters, 515(2), 121-124.
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  • Metuki, N., Sela, T., & Lavidor, M. (2012) Enhancing cognitive control components of insight problems solving by anodal tDCS of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Brain stimulation, 5(2), 110-115.
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  • Chrysikou, E. G., Hamilton, R. H., Coslett, H. B., Datta, A., Bikson, M., & Thompson-Schill, S. L. (2013) Noninvasive transcranial direct current stimulation over the left prefrontal cortex facilitates cognitive flexibility in tool use. Cognitive neuroscience, 4(2), 81-89.
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  • Why use professional devices like Plato: Expert warning against DIY neural stimulation.
    Wurzman, R., Hamilton, R., Pascual‐Leone, A., & Fox, M. (2016)
    An open letter concerning do‐it‐yourself (DIY) users of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Annals of neurology.
    PDF

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