ADHD and the Dreamachine

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In the Guardian/Observer today was an article Bright sparks: could bioelectricity make us smarter and healthier? This mentions the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)  “… to improve everything from treatment-resistant depression to poor maths skills”. The piece lacks links but I was intrigued enough to find a few, along with a potential application for my Dreamachine project. This is a work-in-progress that’s on pause at the moment because I recently got some new work and until I’m properly habituated to that I’d better avoid distractions. But I thought I’d better put some breadcrumbs around the little rabbit hole I just went down for future reference.

The alternating current version of tDCS is, surprise, tACS. Reading around this I stumbled on this article in Psychology Today : “Synchronizing Brain Waves Can Turbocharge Executive Function“. This in turn led me to a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Disruption and Rescue of Interareal Theta Phase Coupling and Adaptive Behavior”.

Ok, how does this tie in with the Dreamachine? Well the paper’s all about stimulating different parts of the brain with signals at a frequency corresponding to theta waves (~6Hz). The generation of those is very much in scope for the Dreamachine.

How does this tie in with ADHD? That paper ^ describes how, by sending signals in phase to a couple of separate brain regions, executive function could be improved. Conversely, with the 6Hz signals out of phase, executive function was impaired. It’s commonly believed that ADHD symptoms arise from executive dysfunction.

A big caveat at this point is that the areas of the brain being stimulated with AC are in the frontal cortex, quite a distance from the visual cortex (at the back) and auditory cortex (sides). It wouldn’t be difficult to extend the current Dreamachine to allow direct electrical stimulation (a bit of research needed, and no doubt some safety precautions…).

But one thing we can say for sure about the brain is that it’s seriously interconnected. For starters, pretty much all sensory data gets passed through the thalamus. I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to imagine when this information finds it way to the more abstract processing regions, it retains some of the phase/sync characteristics.

I started on the Dreamachine as it seemed a fun way of figuring out some of the realtime processing need on the ESP32 microcontroller to do music synthesis. I reckon I’ve done the hard parts of that now, but do want to finish the device off as it’s since become clear that it could be genuinely useful as a tool for research into sound/light stimulation.

I’m not entirely sure yet what facilities would be good to add to the Dreamachine code (beyond the fairly lengthy list of issues I have, needed to get it to where I would have previously considered it done). I’ve already got some basic handling of phase between the 2 channels (left & right eye/ear), it should be pretty straightforward to extend this. I imagine (say) it starts with 6Hz on the 2 channels 180° out of phase, then over the space of 5 minutes gradually brings them in phase, maybe leave it there for a further 5 mins. If there was any brain synchronization to the signal, maybe that would be brought into phase too.

Obviously the thing might be of no use whatsoever in the treatment of ADHD and related conditions. But it does seem nice serendipity that there’s this whole avenue of potential research that hadn’t occurred to me at all.

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