The $249 Foc.us device shoots an electrical current into the brain – boosting one’s cognitive abilities. Sounds like science fiction? It’s not — transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) received funding from both the US government and its claims come backed by growing stacks of scientific research.
Even the Department of Defense threw money at various tDCS research projects. Cashing in on the tDCS craze, the Foc.us device targets the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with focus and attention. In theory, the Foc.us should improve users’ attention spans. While the manufacturer bills the device as a starter kit for those interested in tDCS, it could prove useful for a wider audience, including students, gamers and others. So does the Foc.us work and is it worth the money?
The Science and the Controversy
tDCS – on the surface – can provide cognitive enhancement and medical treatment. Studies show that methods similar to tDCS might treat memory loss in the elderly, depression and other neurological disorders. Other research indicate that tDCS can boost learning and other cognitive abilities. While some studies support the efficacy of applying electrical stimulation to the brain, the studies don’t cover the long-term effects. However, the short-term consequences appear benign. Some users reported temporary blindness, aggression and more. To my knowledge, no users reported death or injury. However, those suffering from seizures or epilepsy: DO NOT USE tDCS! It could potentially trigger a seizure!
tDCS DIY kits cost mere dollars – which could explain the calls from politicians to regulate tDCS technology. Regulation would, in effect, keep the technology out of the hands of the masses. Despite impending regulation, a growing tDCS community exists, notably on Reddit.
Aesthetics and Design
The majority of consumer tDCS devices appear much like home-brewed kits, cobbled together from spare parts from Radioshack. The lack of aesthetic polish may give many potential users pause. Departing from its brethren, the Foc.us fuses together aesthetic appeal with ease-of-use. It features a black, hard-plastic build, along with rubber grips. It’s semi-rigid, offering a degree of flexibility – it’s barely flexible enough to fit on one’s head.
Comfort and Fit
On the downside, the unit doesn’t accommodate larger heads very well. I found that the Foc.us’s internal electrodes wouldn’t make proper contact with my forehead – and its placement didn’t quite line up with the zones that the manufacturer intended the device to target. Also, the first few seconds of wearing the device causes a slight burning sensation. If the Foc.us’s electrodes make a secure fit, this sensation will vanish within a minute. If poorly fitted, the burning will continue, as the current will possess a narrower pathway — potentially causing skin irritation or even very minor burns.
Specifications and Features
- Automatic shut-off
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Current ranges between 0.8 mA and 2.0 mA
- External electrode support
- Internal vibrating motor
- Foc.us headband
- microUSB cable
- 8 sponges
- Dripper bottle
- Instruction manual
- Carrying case
The initial configuration process of the Foc.us headband requires just a few simple steps.
- First, charge the device using the micro-USB cable.
- Second, moisten both sides of four sponges with a saline solution (or water) and insert them into the Foc.us device, near the copper plates. There are four, circular containers which will hold the sponges.
- Third, flip the power button from “W” to “O” – thereby putting it into standby mode — and then holding the capacitive button for three seconds. The Foc.us will then vibrate, and the Foc.us logo will flash blue, indicating it can initiate a Bluetooth pairing.
- Finally, position the Foc.us device on one’s head, using the instructions above. Make sure that all four sponges make solid contact with your forehead. If they don’t, the device will not operate or will malfunction.
- Optionally, the Foc.us offers a Bluetooth pairing mode. The Bluetooth pairing process requires an Android device with – at the very least – KitKat (4.4). The Foc.us app allows the user to enter various modes, while stimulate the brain in different ways. It also allows for firmware upgrades and several kinds of brain stimulation patterns. The purpose of these patterns isn’t very clear – nothing in the instruction manual explains them.
Making Use of the Foc.us Headband
As billed by the makers of Foc.us, the device purportedly aids attention span and focus. Its primary use boosts gaming ability – users should manage to score significantly higher on focus-oriented tasks. While the manufacturer states that the Foc.us is intended for gaming, I instead substituted a reaction time benchmark. Additionally, users can use external electrodes, not included with the Foc.us. These allow users to target areas of the brain associated with other cognitive processes. However, I will not cover this features and the Foc.us does not include external electrodes.
Because gaming performance (particularly on modern games, which lack scores) lacks hardcore testable data, I used the “Simon Effect” reaction time benchmark to determine whether or not my reflexes and focus actually improved. The Simon Effect (here’s the diagnostic test itself) displays either a left or right arrow – the user attempts to hit a corresponding keyboard key in response. The faster the user hits the button, the better the response time.
My methodology is flawed. I tested two weeks before reattempting, wearing the Foc.us device, in order to minimize the effect of learning. Even so, other elements, such as time of day, sleep the night before, etc. could have dramatically thrown my results off. Don’t assume my results approach a scientific standard. They don’t.
As you can see (from the chart below), my initial results were spectacularly awful (I was one of the worst ever tested). While my average “correct” responses were well below the average response time, my prodigious error rate exceeded the average.
With Foc.us Results
My reaction time skyrocketed, while the error rate collapsed. These numbers indicate that some kind of cognitive augmentation occurred. I can’t confidently attribute the improvement to the Foc.us, but the spike in improvement could (in part) be due to the Foc.us. My initial results are displayed in the upper-right hand side of the graph, in the red box. My results after using the Foc.us are indicated by the red square in the lower-left hand side of the graph. Both response time and accuracy increased.
- Skin Irritation: After several minutes of use, I experienced a small degree of skin irritation. If the sponges don’t make solid contact with one’s skin, the Foc.us begins increasing voltage – this can cause skin irritation as well as visual artifacts, such as flashes of light. tDCS can even cause loss of consciousness or even blindness.
- Burning: The Foc.us ramps up amperage when it detects resistance; for example, if the sponges don’t make complete contact with the user’s skin.
- Phosphenes: Users may experience visual “artifacts” called phosphenes – bright flashes of light. Some researchers theorize that is the way our brain automatically compensates for voltage changes.
- Poor documentation: Foc.us’s developers failed to include a lot of necessary documentation. See below for additional details.
- Questionable Safety: While tDCS, so far, has proven safe, the Foc.us has a potentially deal-breaking tendency to ramp up voltage when it senses high resistance or poor electrode-to-skin contact. This may cause greater amounts of skin irritation than other tDCS devices and/or greater amount of phosphene creation — among other potential risks.
- Aggression: I have read anecdotal accounts that the Foc.us can increase aggression after prolonged periods of use. I’ve been using it daily for three weeks and have yet to experience these symptoms. Readers should pay careful attention that the brain portions stimulated by the Foc.us are UNTESTED by studies. As such, there are likely unknown consequences of using it.
For those interested in purchasing the Foc.us, you’ll need to know two basic means of replacing electrodes, how to properly fit the Foc.us device and a bit about oxidation.
After a fair amount of use, the electrodes (sponges) on the Foc.us will require replacement. You will notice that they won’t absorb liquid or will display signs of absorbing copper carbonate – the oxidative compound that forms on the copper contacts. Just cut disks from a house-hold sponge and use in place of the electrodes.
To avoid oxidation of the copper contacts on the Foc.us, consider using water or electro-conductive gel instead of saline solution. You can also use external electrodes. I used saline, but it almost immediate caused greenish oxidation on cathode copper contacts. Oxidation is normal, but the formation of copper carbonate is increased by use of saline. I see no easy way of replacing the internal copper electrode contacts, so device longevity remains in question.
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation works. It’s hard not being impressed with the Foc.us’s elegant design, ease-of-use and flexibility. Unfortunately, the Foc.us doesn’t quite meet muster. While it offers a slick, easy-to-use design, an excellent app and more – the $249 price-tag combined with a lack of safety features make it a poor sale to those seeking to dip their toes into tDCS. Had the device included proper safety features I would recommend the Foc.us – but this single, bizarre omission should make any potential buyer balk.
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