A buyer's guide to brain scans.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
April 23 2004 5:29 PM

How To Hack Your Head

A buyer's guide to recreational brain scanning.

(Continued from Page 1)

Pros: Always-on neurofeedback means you'll never leave "the zone."

Cons: Brain-wave scanning is not as precise an index of neural activity as other types of scans;wearing visor while sitting in your cubicle may attract strange looks.

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What You'll Learn: Depends on which waves you're tracking. If you're looking at the attention-related waves of Beta and Theta, you'll learn which situations (talking to people, reading, writing, listening to music) your brain naturally "locks into" and which settings cause it to wander. 

Cost: The Peak Achievement Trainer sells for $3,295, though there are much cheaper, albeit less portable, options on the market. This site is a good place to look for lower-priced items as well as general neurofeedback information.

Cortisol tracking. Your mental state is as much a product of the chemicals circulating through your brain (and often through your body) as it is the product of neuronal activity in specific brain areas. Neurochemistry is already part of the popular vernacular: Think of the endorphins that cause the "runner's high" or the serotonin molecule that's central to the effects of Prozac.

Modern medicine (and not-so-modern recreational drugs) let us manipulate our chemical states, but the tools available for tracking our various neurochemical levels are more limited. It's much easier to create a pill that increases the availability of serotonin in the brain than it is to figure out exactly how much serotonin is actually shuffling around in there. Perhaps the closest thing to neurotransmitter analysis available right now involves the stress hormone cortisol. Technically speaking, cortisol is not produced directly in the brain—it originates in the adrenal glands—but its release is triggered by a brain substance called corticotropin-releasing factor or CRF.

Elevated cortisol levels usually accompany severe depression in adults, and suicide victims often turn out to have enlarged adrenal glands, signaling unusually high cortisol production. Because cortisol levels rise and fall with a daily rhythm, some doctors believe that a crucial first step to treating stress and sleep disorders is determining when there are aberrations in the patient's daily pattern of cortisol release. The nice thing about cortisol is that you can track its presence in your system via simple saliva tests. A number of companies sell home cortisol tests, though you have to send the sample back to their labs for results. A doctor or therapist may also be able to do more extensive (and expensive) tests that look at cortisol levels at different points in the day.

Pros: Gives you insight into your brain chemistry; saliva sample makes it easy to take samples at home or the office.

Cons: Cortisol is only one player among many in the chemistry of emotion.

What You'll Learn: If you have stretches in the day where you reliably crash, or can't get enough energy, these tests will show if your natural cortisol rhythms are out of whack.

Cost:  A single home test goes for $65.95, but a suite of tests, plus a therapist's fee, will most likely be closer to $500.

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