Researchers warn against home use of brain zapping device used for post-stroke therapy

A therapy that's being researched to help stroke victims is also taking off as an at-home remedy to improve memory and brain function, but researchers say users should be weary of these on-line kits. (Image credit: MGN Online)

A therapy that's being researched to help stroke victims is also taking off as a home remedy to improve memory and brain function, but researchers say users should be weary of these online kits.

Transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, send a low intensity electric current to the brain.

Austin Speech Labs and the University of Texas conducted a pilot study to see if brain stimulation combined with intensive speech therapy could help improve speech in stoke victims.

Mark Sutton suffered a stroke four years ago and took part in the study. He told CBS Austin the electrodes attached to his scalp did not hurt and he was happy with the results.

Participants received 20 minutes of stimulation followed by three hours of intensive speech therapy for several weeks.

Jackie Goodfellow is a caretaker for participant David Friend. She noticed improvements in Friend's speech during the study.

"In a couple of weeks I was hearing more words," Goodfellow said.

According to Dr. Thomas Marquardt, professor of communication sciences and disorders at UT, the long term hope is for participants to have a better ability to produce words and sentences after the study.

Marquardt said researchers noticed improved speech, but added the participant pool is too small to jump to conclusions.

"It looks at least as if we have some proof of concept. In other words, given this research design and given this type of application of the treatment, there's a reasonable expectation that we might be able to demonstrate improvement by using this technique," Marquardt said.

TDCS isn't only being used in research settings. A quick online search for "TDCS" yields hundreds of results advertised as brain stimulator kits for less than $200.

"I've seen them selling them on the internet so you can just boost your brain," Goodfellow said.

But experts warn against the online kits.

"I would be very cautious about using any technology that has not been clearly evaluated by the science community," Marquardt said.

TDCS has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"We don't know what the long term effects of this device actually are and I hope people wait patiently for scientists to find the answers," said Shilpa Shamapant, president and co-founder of Austin Speech Labs.

Shamapant adds that not all devices are made equal. The research cap loaned to Austin Speech Labs for the study costs $20,000.

"All I can say is please let the scientists do the research, figure out the answers, because we are not just talking about anything here, we are talking about the brain and if it changes something that's permanent damage and we don't want that to happen," Shamapant said.

Dayna Sutton is desperate to help her husband communicate again but is also leery of attaching just any device to his head.

"Would I go buy one and do it at home? No. I would want him to be in a place where they know what they're doing," Sutton said.

Sutton said she's optimistic about the treatment and hopes it moves towards FDA approval.

"The amount of words and verbs he was able to get out after the study was amazing, the bad part is once the study is over it's over and you can't get the cap anymore," Sutton said.

Researchers will publish their findings in the Journal of Stroke & Cerebrovascular Diseases and hope to get a grant in order to do a larger-scale study in the future.