DIY Brain-Shock Kits Jump Start Users' Day

Although not FDA approved, some say tDCS kits help boost concentration.

ByABC News
November 11, 2014, 12:59 PM

— -- 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.”