Brain zapping: What is it and is it safe

Posted at 6:23 PM, Feb 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-27 18:23:30-05

 You have a huge project at work, a midterm or final; you just need an extra boost to focus or concentrate.  Forget caffeine…or even meds. Why not just zap your brain into gear, literally?

Everyone from students, gamers, even businesspeople are scooping up devices online that shoot a small electric current into the head for cognitive enhancement.

One of those people: Steven Leinweber. By any standard, the computer programmer is smart as a whip, but he found his day job was sapping all his mental energy. “There would be this feeling of like I'm tired, this is a lot of work. Or, I'd start to, ya know, get a little foggy.”

He wanted to clear the fog to take on extra hobbies. So, he did some research and decided to try something called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS.

“Even though I'm not a medical expert, I thought I'd give it a try,” Leinweber says.

With tDCS, you put electrodes on your head that send a low dose of electric current, supposedly to your brain. It’s used by doctors in clinical settings, but there are many popular devices you can buy online.

Many claim the technology used in the device can do everything from provide “relief for depression” to “increase cognitive performance.”

“tDCS is not a fringe technology, so it's not a tinfoil hat type thing. So, there have over a thousand published studies on tDCS showing that it has potential effects both for treatment and enhancement,” says Anna Wexler, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT who is so interested in the at-home tDCS market, she’s doing her doctoral thesis on it.

She says the current is so low—you can’t be electrocuted, and the biggest physical risks reported are skin burns and headache.

Is it safe?

But, leading researchers recently wrote an open letter to at-home users published in the Annals of Neurology,  warning that messing around with the level of current or duration “can actually reverse the effect and cause the opposite change in brain function.”

“There's another kind of safety, which people talk about and that researchers are very concerned about, which is effects of long term use, the unknown risks, “ says Wexler, who adds that there have been no long-term studies on what tDCS can do to the brain over time.

Additionally, Wexler says, “Right now, consumers have no way of assessing the safety or efficacy of these devices, or even evaluating the claims made by manufacturers of these devices.”

Who's regulating it?

One manufacturer told us that “tDCS is not regulated by the FDA and is not considered a medical procedure/device.”

We asked the FDA about claims and devices. The agency said it can’t comment on “whether these devices have undergone the appropriate clearance or approval.”

So, we then turned to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Its response? That tDCS is “not in CPSC’s jurisdiction due to the medical claims.”

The confusion does not surprise Wexler. “I think what's really needed is further enforcement clarity about which agency will be stepping up to the plate to be the primary regulator of these devices.”

Leinweber isn’t concerned about regulation. He says the risk is worth the reward for him. Since he started tDCS he has: mastered the Rubik’s Cube, built a super-computer, and a 3D printer… all in his spare time.

“The effect that I experience is that ability to absorb more information more easily and with less time,” says Leinweber. He stressed he is careful when telling his story not to advocate for anyone else.  He believes everyone must do their own research to determine a risk- benefit analysis. He also concedes although he thinks he learns faster, he has no proof it is from the tDCS. He would like to see more research.

The FDA told us it always advises consumers to consult a healthcare provider before using any device, just as it would advise people trying a supplement or medication.