The class was the most difficult of the fall 2013 semester, and J.D. Leadam had missed all but one lecture. His grandfather’s health had worsened, and he left San Jose State, where he was studying for a degree in business, to return home to San Diego to help out. Before he knew it, midterm exams had almost arrived.
At this point, Leadam had, for a while, been playing around with transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, an experimental treatment for all sorts of health issues that, at its most basic, involves running a very weak electric current through the brain.
When he first came across tDCS, Leadam was immediately intrigued but thought, “There’s no way I’m gonna put electrodes on my head. It’s just not going to happen.” After extensive research, though, he changed his mind. He looked into buying a device online, but there wasn’t much available — just one extremely expensive machine and then a bare-bones $40 device that didn’t even have a switch. So he dug around online and figured he could build one himself. He bought all the pieces he needed and put it together. He tried it a few times, but didn’t notice much, so he put it aside.
But now, with the test looming, he picked it back up. The professor had written a book, and Leadam knew all the information he’d be tested on was written in its pages. “But I’m an auditory learner,” he said, “so I knew it wouldn’t work to just read it.” He strapped on the device, turned it on and read the chapters. “Nothing,” he thought. But when he got to the classroom and put pen to paper, he had a revelation.
“I could remember concepts down to the exact paragraphs in the textbook,” Leadam said. “I actually ended up getting an A on the test. I couldn’t believe it.”
In the past few years, a previously unexplored area of neuroscience has been blown wide open. TDCS is being hailed as a game-changing innovation with the potential to disrupt the stranglehold the pharmaceutical industry has had on mental and neurological health for the past century and, very simply, to make life better for millions.