Zapping your brain into gear

Steven Leinweber is very smart, but he found his day job was sapping all his mental energy.

"There would be this feeling of like, I, ya know, I'm tired, this is a lot of work. or, I'd start to, ya know, get a little foggy."

Leinweber wanted to clear the fog to take on extra hobbies. So, he did some research and decided to try something called trans-cranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS.

"Even though I'm not a medical expert, I thought I'd give it a try."

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 also devices you can buy online.

Many claim the technology 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 been over a thousand published studies on TDCS showing that it potentially has effects both for treatment and for enhancement," said Anna Wexler, MIT PH.D. candidate.

Wexler is doing her doctoral thesis on the at home TDCS market. She says the current is so low you can't be electrocuted and the biggest physical risks reported are skin burns and headaches.

Leading researchers recently wrote an open letter, warning that messing 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," said Wexler.

One manufacturer told us, "TDCS is not regulated by the FDA and is not considered a medical procedure or device."

We asked the FDA about the claims and the agency told us it couldn't comment on "whether these devices have undergone the appropriate clearance or approval".

So, we then turned to the Consumer Product Safety Commission which said TDCS is not in its jurisdiction "due to the medical claims."

"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," said Wexler.

Leinweber isn't concerned about regulation and he says the risk is worth the reward. Since he started TDCS he has mastered the Rubik's Cube, built a super-computer and a 3-d printer all in his spare time.

"The effect that I experience is that ability to absorb more information more easily and with less time."

The FDA says it always advises consumers to consult a healthcare provider before using any new device.
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