For J.D. Leadam, his idea of getting a morning jolt doesn't come from a cup of coffee, but something a bit more literal: an actual jolt of electricity straight to his brain.
Leadam uses a contraption called tDCS, or Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation, in which he attaches an electrode to his head and a cathode to his arm, and gives himself a small shock.
“I definitely think it is effective,” he said. “I stopped drinking coffee altogether. I used to drink two, three, four cups a day, and now just doing one short tDCS session in the morning is enough to carry me through the day.”
Leadam, 25, founded The Brain Stimulator, a brain stimulation kit-selling business he started in his mother’s California garage. He said he first heard about tDCS in college, and used it as a learning aid to study for a final.
“I don’t really retain textual-based information that well, so I decided to try out the tDCS device while I read to see if it would help me remember,” he said. “The next day when I went in to take the test, I thought I was going to fail, but it turned out that I got an A. And I actually remember looking at the questions and remembering the concepts down to the very paragraph they were located in the book.”
Such brain stimulation is unregulated and not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but that hasn’t stopped it from going mainstream. Dozens of videos on YouTube show people with their own DIY devices, including video gamers who believe their skills have improved by hooking themselves up to tDCS kits.
Leadam says he sells between 25 and 50 of his $90 brain stimulation devices per day, with his mother, uncle and even his grandmother stepping into his home office to help him meet demand. Although his site includes the warning, "The Brain Stimulator is not a medical device," and "The results are from our findings and may be incomplete and/or completely wrong! Do not view this data as absolute fact,” Leadam says he sees demand for brain stimulation as only growing.
“It could turn into something in the wearables market where it’s a common to see people walking around with these devices on their head or it could stay as more of something that people like to do in their house or in private,” he said.
Scientists from around the world have been researching tDCS’ impact on the human brain in controlled clinical studies for years. The Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center at the University of New Mexico has been “ground zero” for some of the most comprehensive studies into tDCS. Small studies to prove tDCS success rates are still ongoing.
“We have a number of studies that have been replicated a number of times and each time we’re able to at least double-learning rate in a collection of tasks that we tried,” center director Vincent Clark said. “[tDCS]... can be used to enhance performance. So like a pharmaceutical, it influences brain function in a way that might produce benefits. So it is a performance enhancer if you use it the right way.”
For 40-year-old Jaime Campbell, a schizophrenic, tDCS provides hope. Campbell has received psychiatric treatment and been on medication for 19 years.
“One of the hardest things is when the voices come, most of the time, at least for me, my voices are almost all negative,” she said. “I take 10 pills a day; to help control my psycho system and my emotions.”
Campbell has received regular doses of tDCS five times a week for the past month through a study at the University of New Mexico.
“The first day was better and so was the second day,” she said. “I was worried that I was just making this up and just doing the difference. But the fact that my head is still quiet three weeks later makes me think that I don’t think I’m making it up.”
Indeed, researchers pointed out that MRI scans of Campbell’s brain taken before and after stimulation do seem to show a positive difference.
“We’ll see if ... the benefits that Jaime has gotten, we can find in other people as well, and if it works for a number of people, you know, we’ve got something,” Clark said.
Another patient in the university’s clinical trials is Jessie Stephens, who is trying to beat a five-year smoking habit. She said she was skeptical of tDCS but decided to try a combination of the study's brain stimulation and meditation to quit smoking.
She said she always feels a bit better after her tDCS sessions and she craves cigarettes less, but she thinks the meditation is helping her.
Today, Stephens said she hasn’t completely beaten her smoking habit, but she does smoke fewer cigarettes a day.
So if tDCS seems to be so successful, why isn’t brain stimulation approved by the FDA? Dr. Clark believes one reason is because the concept is still very new.
“A lot of doctors haven’t heard of it yet, so they’re not prescribing it to their patients,” he said. “A lot of the big studies that need to be done, safety studies and a lot of clinical trials haven’t been done yet because they’re very expensive. And there’s a catch 22 here. ... It’s not like a pharmaceutical where you can charge 10 dollars a dose, 100 dollars a dose... There’s just not a lot of money to be made in that respect, so the money to develop it as a treatment, that isn’t there.”
Although University of New Mexico’s Clark believes tDCS’ potential is enormous, he says his research has years to go and buying a homemade kit might be risky.
“Very few of those people realize that nobody’s done these studies to be sure that doing that is actually safe, and it may be or may not be,” he said. "Those studies need to be done, especially if we’re trying to develop this as a treatment for different illnesses.”