3 On Your Side

Is brain-zapping safe?

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Steven Leinweber tried something called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Steven Leinweber tried something called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
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. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) 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. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Anna Wexler said the current is so low—you can’t be electrocuted, and the biggest physical risks reported are skin burns and headache. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Anna Wexler said the current is so low—you can’t be electrocuted, and the biggest physical risks reported are skin burns and headache. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(3 ON YOUR SIDE) -

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 business people are scooping up devices online that shoot a small electric current into the head for cognitive enhancement.

One of those people is 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,” Leinweber said.

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 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.

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. “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.”

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 is 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,” Wexler said.

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.

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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Gary HarperGary Harper is the senior consumer and investigative reporter for 3 On Your Side at KTVK-TV.

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Gary Harper
3 On Your Side

With more than 20 years of television experience, Gary has established himself as a leader in the industry when it comes to assisting viewers and resolving their consumer-related issues. His passion and enthusiasm have helped him earn an Emmy for Best Consumer Reporter from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He’s also garnered several Emmy nominations

He has negotiated resolutions with companies of all sizes, including some of the biggest corporations in the nation.

Gary has successfully recouped more than $1 million for viewers around the state, making 3 On Your Side one of the most popular segments on KTVK and the station's Web site.

He's best known for investigating and confronting unscrupulous contractors. In fact, many of his news reports have led to police investigations and jail time for those who were caught. Viewers, as well as the companies and people he investigates, regard him as consistently being thorough and fair.

Gary has been with KTVK-TV since 1997. Prior to his arrival in Phoenix, he worked for WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was as an anchor and reporter.

Gary is from Chicago, but launched his television career in Lubbock, Texas, after earning a broadcast journalism degree from Texas Tech University. Following his graduation, he was quickly hired by KLBK-TV in Lubbock, where he enterprised and broke numerous exclusive reports. His aggressive reporting in Texas helped garner him Best Reporter by the Associated Press.

Gary has been married since 1994 and is the proud father of two sons. When he's not helping viewers, Gary is busy catching up on his favorite college and professional football teams as well as cheering on his beloved Texas Tech Red Raiders.

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