January 24, 2003
Mind Control Rays Department

Yes, wearing a hat made from a colander would probably provide some kind of protection against this...

Boston Globe Online / Health | Science / Zap!: Scientist bombards brains with super-magnets to edifying effect. By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff, 1/14/20.

Just by pointing his super-magnets at the right spots on your head, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone can make you go momentarily mute or blind.

He can disrupt your working memory or your ability to recognize faces. He can even make it harder for you to say verbs while nouns remain as easy as ever.

Weird, yes. Fringe, no.

Pascual-Leone is one of the premier scientific pioneers exploring a new technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, which shuts down or revs up the electrical doings inside the brain by sending a potent magnetic field through the skull.

This is no try-it-at-home parlor trick and no ''Relieve your Pain!'' magnetic bracelet or insole.

Invented in 1985, modern-day magnetic stimulators charge up to a whopping 3,000 volts and produce peak currents of up to 8,000 amps - powers similar to those of a small nuclear reactor.

That pulse of current flowing from a capacitor into a hand-held coil creates a magnetic field outside the patient's head. The field painlessly induces a current inside the brain, affecting the electrical activity that is the basis for all it does.

The promise of TMS as a scientific tool seems similarly powerful. And it has generated a range of intriguing practical effects as well, from improving attention to combating depression, that have been published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals.

''From the point of view of cognitive neuroscience - understanding how brain activity relates to behavior - it is, in a way, a dream come true for all of us, because it provides a way to create our own patients, as it were,'' said Pascual-Leone, director of the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. ''You can create a very transient disruption of the brain. For a few milliseconds, it is as if those cells were not there. So you are able to ask questions about what role a particular brain part plays in a particular behavior.''

More and more, TMS also appears to hold the potential for therapy to help with brain problems, including depression, Parkinson's Disease and stroke.

Evidence, including a seminal paper by Pascual-Leone in 1996, has been mounting that repeated sessions of TMS can alleviate recalcitrant cases of depression, and without the nasty side effects of electroshock treatment.

Hundreds of studies in the past decade have explored myriad potential TMS targets, including schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Most recently, a small study published last month found that applying TMS to parts of the brain involved in processing sound could temporarily reduce the endless buzzing-in-the-ears of tinnitus.

Pascual-Leone and his colleagues plan to try TMS next month on patients whose ability to speak has been damaged by stroke. Preliminary work indicates that their brains, in trying to repair the damage, may have rewired themselves wrong. So blocking certain areas can actually help the patients speak better, he said.

He has a full shopping list of other projects held up only by lack of money, including plans to expand on work using TMS to relieve chronic pain and to speed up the learning of physical skills. For all his own obvious excitement, Pascual-Leone's talk is constantly punctuated by caveats that TMS is too unproven for other people to get too excited.

For the most part in those hundreds of studies, he said, he hears ''a premature ringing of the bells. It may help some people but it risks creating a lot of premature expectations that may not hold true in the end.''

Still, he's not against a few flights of fancy. What if, he asked, TMS could block the brain activity associated with lying, and witnesses would get zapped before taking the stand? ''It opens up all kinds of cans of worms,'' he said.

Or take the question of mental enhancement. Pascual-Leone was the first to demonstrate that TMS can not only block brain functioning, it can temporarily enhance it as well. In some studies, TMS has appeared to improve subjects' working memories, speed up their problem-solving, and sharpen their attention.

Might it be possible, he wondered, to pre-activate a person's brain with TMS and enable them to learn faster? What if some day a student could rev up one part of his brain before French class and another before a piano lesson?

TMS is far too crude and little-tried at this point to allow for such specific interventions. Still, the military is already aiming for TMS enhancement. Researchers at the Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina announced last year that they had received a $2 million government grant to develop a TMS device - probably a helmet - to sharpen the minds of sleep-deprived soldiers while they wore it.

Ultimately, Pascual-Leone said, the field will likely move in the direction of developing such longer-term TMS devices. Already, repeated stimulations can apparently produce effects lasting for weeks afterward, by revving up underactive areas or quieting down overactive spots for long enough that the changes linger even after the stimulation stops.

But these are still very early days. TMS is conveniently noninvasive - years ago, it took electrodes inserted in an open brain to produce similar results - and it appears to have virtually no side effects. But there is always risk with something so new, Pascual-Leone cautioned, in particular, risk that it could cause some unexpected long-term harm.

Dr. John A. Cadwell of Cadwell Laboratories in Kennewick, Wash., which began producing a commercially viable TMS machine back in 1990, agreed: ''I think it's a good tool, but it's not one that should be sold at Wal-Mart just yet.''

Inventors had been tinkering with the application of powerful magnets to the human brain since the end of the 19th century. But it was only in 1985 that Dr. Anthony T. Barker, a professor of medical physics at the University of Sheffield in England, finally created the first effective transcranial stimulator.

Barker is a skeptic about any other medical claims for garden-variety magnets, he said, but he no longer doubts that TMS can affect mood, at the very least.

''I think it's going to be useful,'' he said. ''Whether it will be very, very useful, only time will tell.''

Many of the initial volunteers for TMS experiments were the researchers themselves, on the principle that they should not ask subjects to do what they would not do themselves.

''I've probably had more zaps to my brain than anybody else on the planet,'' Barker said blithely.

The beginning was not so blithe: There were real questions about whether TMS might induce some of the complications - memory loss, seizures - that electroshock can bring.

Cadwell recalled that in the early days of testing a TMS machine, ''No one knew if we were going to be the next one to have a seizure, or if 12 years of medical residency would suddenly get blown away.''

TMS did induce several seizures in participants in the early years, but researchers have since worked out technical safety rules that prevent them and established that no significant memory loss occurs.

Pascual-Leone, 41, who did the first TMS safety study and wrote the first paper on TMS ethics, has zapped himself countless times, too. The zapping looks strange but not scary: When a post-doctoral student, Yukiyasu Kamitani, sat for a dress rehearsal of a TMS experiment the other day, it sounded like nothing more than a bag of microwave popcorn on its final pops, and felt, Kamitani said, like someone was lightly flicking his scalp.

Still, though TMS is already starting to be offered in Canada (see www.mindcarecentres.com), it appears unlikely that it will arrive soon in American clinics.

Cadwell, the American manufacturer, said that TMS devices are approved for clinical use in most other countries, but not by the FDA. So, he said, pronouncing the ultimate clinical death knell, ''It's not a billable procedure.''

Posted by DeLong at January 24, 2003 06:36 AM | Trackback

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Well, I favor my Yankees cap with the aluminum foil lining, but a colander might work.

Seriously, are they serious? This is hands down the most interesting thing I have seen in quite a while. And the military interest is unsettling (but probably inevitable), since the sci-fi brain wave zapper connections are obvious.


Posted by: Tom Maguire on January 24, 2003 07:13 AM

Spider Robinson, please call your office...

"Erase" is lots easier than "read" or "write".

Posted by: Melcher on January 24, 2003 08:11 AM

speaking of colanders, I was once confronted with a large brown bat (that's not a description, it's a name) inside my house. It was (briefly) fascinating to watch it circling the front room, no doubt in a mad echolating frenzy. However, enough fun, and I took up a colander (it was the first thing at hand) to capture the bat when the possibility arose.

The bat must have known that the colander would be an effective tool, because it hastily departed from the open door it had the good fortune to discover. However, my wife still falls to the floor laughing whenever she recalls the image of me, colander in hand, stalking the large brown bat.

Posted by: David on January 24, 2003 10:27 AM

I strongly recommend the Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie website ( http://zapatopi.net/afdb.html )

My foil beanie has been working well for years! At least that's what THEY keep telling me...


Posted by: JI on January 24, 2003 10:42 AM

Snopes did a column once on whether a tinfoil beanie would protect you from the orbital mind control lasers. His conclusion was no; you'd need a full Faraday cage.

Posted by: J. Michael Neal on January 24, 2003 11:09 AM

you'd need a full Faraday cage.

Hmm, I have been thinking of nothing else all day. Aluminum may be reflective to radio waves, but would it stop a magnetic field? Something iron, maybe. I'm sure I have a colander and a magnet to test it with here somewhere...

Posted by: Tom Maguire on January 24, 2003 12:18 PM

A Faraday cage isn't what you need here. These are constructed out of any conductor, and their effect is to reflect electromagnetic radiation. This TMS technique doesn't sound as though it's based on radiation, rather just strong, focused magnetic fields. This is not my area of physics, but what you would need in here is a magnetic shield (which are common used for computer monitors near MRI equipment) made out of stuff called "mu metal". "mu" is the variable used for permeability (a magnetic property of materials) and you want something with a high mu (I think).

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on January 24, 2003 12:50 PM

Regarding the TOPIC: Sign me up! (Joke)

To the other David: If you had waited til daytime, you could have just picked the bat up and put it outside, with no resistance. Of course it might have come back again. And again. And again. And again. Take it from one who knows.

Posted by: David on January 24, 2003 06:30 PM
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