|Style over substance|
The foc.us is a brain stimulator sold directly to consumers to make them better at video games and sports. It claims to "use the force of electricity to make your synapses fire faster" and "overclock your brain", but it is also known for its potential health concerns.
Unlike some other quack devices, the foc.us operates based on transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). tDCS is a type of machine that injects a very small amount of electric current through your brain, and in doing so can make neurons more active or less active (depending on the polarity of the current). tDCS has actually been used in research for decades, and its interest has increased into the mid-2000s.
tDCS is designed to have cognitive-enhancing effects in healthy people, particularly an ability to improve short-term memory and other aspects of executive function. As a result, it's used not only in research and clinical practice, but also by DIYers who typically build their own devices.
Current issues in discussion
The foc.us device is viewed with skepticism by people who actually are active in the field of brain stimulators (including the DIY brain stimulator community).
Investigation in science
Foc.us is sold as a device to improve one's ability to play video games and sports (in part because if they made any medical claims, it might bring the wrath of the Food and Drug Administration). The technique of stimulating the brain by zapping current has been studied in medicine since psychiatry became widespread. The topic of universal use of transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is still well under investigation as it poses a problem for the skin (potential burns) and the extent of tDCS effects. Although foc.us is based on devices that stimulate the brain by zapping current, it is not used as a medical tool and FDA approved.
There is no widespread approval of foc.us in the scientific community. Foc.us has not been used scientifically. Its purpose is not to necessarily gain approval in science but to make an attempt to imitate the effects of tDCS that science has been investigating.
Injuries and problems
Soon after the foc.us was released, users starting reporting a bunch of problems, mostly that it was burning the skin on their foreheads, and, in one episode, caused an immediate loss of consciousness. One brain stimulation researcher managed to get his hands on a device and run some tests on its electronics, and concluded that many of the problems reported likely resulted from the device's totally inadequate electrodes, which squeezed dangerous levels of electric current through a few small patches of skin, leading to burning of the skin. In addition, the report turned up generally shoddy quality control, including a tendency to deliver voltages higher than the stated maximum and an emergency shutdown system that works sometimes.
The exact location of brain stimulation will vary from person-to-person, so without professional application, the use of tDCS will be hit-or-miss. Excessive use of tDCS can cause sleep deprivation. There is some evidence that tDCS can cause short-term improvement in certain types of brain-function, but long-term improvement is unlikely and improvement in one type of brain function is likely to be associated with decline in other types of brain functions.
Why do people buy this thing?
A lot of it is based on marketing. The foc.us doesn't primarily target people using tDCS for research or clinical applications, or even the DIY tDCS community, who tend to have enough knowledge and experience to see through the bullshit surrounding it. By positioning the device as a video gaming peripheral — similar to a fancy mouse or a new graphics card — they can target a market of people who don't have the neuroscience or electronics background to critically evaluate the claims that they make. What's more, it lets them get away with a lower standard; while medical devices are required to have scientific evidence that it will:
- Actually do what the manufacturer says it does, and
- Not hurt you (or at least have a benefit that surpasses the risk)
By passing their device off as a piece of video gaming equipment foc.us can disguise the fact that what they're really selling is a poorly-designed device claimed to reprogram your brain.
- Transcranial direct current stimulation:state of the art 2008
- Anodal transcranial direct current stimulation of prefrontal cortex enhances working memory
- At-home brain stimulation gaining followers