Turn on, tune in and get high on 'audio drugs'?
Parents and schools voice concern about the effects of "audio drugs" or "digital drugs" on teen minds. Sometimes sold under the brand name I-Dosers, the sound patterns are raising a debate on whether they have the same effect as chemical drugs.
MIAMI — For decades, parents, doctors and school administrators have worried about the dangers of drugs. In the digital age, they've got a new arena for concern: Sound waves that, some say, affect the brain like a drug — and cost only 99 cents on iTunes and Amazon.com.
Many scientific experts say they're unfamiliar with "digital drugs" — sometimes sold under the brand name I-Dosers — and doubt whether sound patterns could have the same effect as chemical drugs. But some parents — and at least one Oklahoma school system — worry that downloading these sounds could be a teen's first step toward physical drugs.
As proof, they point to YouTube, where hundreds of videos — some of teen "users" getting "high" — have been posted. On the I-Doser Facebook page, users recommend tracks with comments such as, "Last night I did 'peyote' and 'alter-x' and they really worked." The I-Doser free software is the second most downloaded program in the science category on CNET.com, with 6,500 downloads in a single recent week.
Parent Maria Christina Gonzalez of Kendall, Fla., found the I-Doser program on her 15-year-old son's laptop. Though the teen told his mother the sounds had no effect, she isn't sure what to think.
"I can't say I believe it or not unless I were to actually try it," Gonzalez said. "I don't dare."
Another Miami-Dade County mother, who requested her name not be used, shared the same worry when she learned her son downloaded I-Dosers.
"He had the curiosity to search," she said. "It may not do any harm; it's just one more thing to worry about."
Multiple agencies and research institutes contacted said they were unfamiliar with I-Dosers. That includes the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the South Florida D.A.R.E. program and the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokesman John Schuster said school counselors haven't seen I-Dosers as an issue but are keeping it on their radar. The same was true for Broward County Public Schools, where Nadine Drew said the schools' investigative unit is looking more into it.
Still, parents in the town of Mustang, Okla., were warned about I-Dosers in March when the school superintendent there sent a letter saying some students at Mustang High who listened to the sounds "exhibited the same physical effects as if they were under the effects of drugs or alcohol," including increased blood pressure, rapid pulse and involuntary eye movements.
It's no secret that sound can affect moods. Chants and waves have long been used in relaxation and meditation. The bestseller "Musicophilla: Tales of Music and the Brain" (Vintage, 2008), by Columbia University neurologist and psychiatrist Oliver Sacks, documents the benefits of music therapy on individuals with brain disorders, including stroke, Alzheimer's and Parkinsons.
I-Dosers and other "digital drugs" typically sound like a low hum, reminiscent of those constant horns at World Cup games, sometimes punctuated with ocean sounds.
The science behind these particular sounds is binaural beats. The basic concept is similar to a tuning fork: one frequency plays in the right ear and a second, slightly different frequency plays in the left ear. The mind creates a hum that's a balance between the two.
Though articles about binaural beats appeared in Scientific American as early as 1975, the rhythms' effects on the brain remains hazy.
Groups like The Monroe Institute in Virginia, an organization that promotes binaural beats as a way to meditate, say the beats they use will get the brain's hemispheres synced to a particular wave.
"I don't know that anybody has ever proved technically how it works," said Paul Rademacher, executive director at Monroe Institute, who started listening to binaural beats in 1997. The institute, a not-for-profit organization, uses a brand of beats called Hemi-Sync marketed by its affiliate, Monroe Products. He hasn't tried the I-Doser brand of beats, he said.
Binaural beats were the basis of a 2005 University of South Florida study on whether the sounds could improve focus among children and young adults with ADHD. Results were inconclusive.
Yet I-Doser.com's site maintains its binaural beats simulate the effects of drugs, alcohol and other feelings, such as "first love" and "orgasm" — the site's bestseller. I-Doser sounds can be downloaded as mp3 files on iTunes or Amazon, or they can be heard through special software that reads .DRG — or drug — sound files.
Founded in 2005, I-Doser audio sequences have been downloaded more than one million times, according to founder Nick Ashton of New York.
The site encourages users to spread the word — "become a dealer" — and get 20 percent of sales. It also has links to sites selling marijuana — "legal bud," "legal hash" — and mood enhancement pills.
Not all I-Doser branded sounds are drug related. Some say they can be used for improving sleep or intensifying alertness, while others are aimed at improving performance in role-playing video games.
For all, the goal is "simulated experiences," Ashton wrote in an e-mail. These are accomplished through tests, including brainwave mapping and user interviews to get the audio sequences to closely match how the brain responds to an external stimuli.
"We don't release a sequence until we see close to 80 percent success rate," Ashton said.
Although the sounds can be downloaded by anyone, the I-Doser site includes a disclaimer saying that the sounds are for people older than 18.
"We have an age warning because some of our sequences can cause an altered state of mind," Ashton said. "It is there so they are given respect, as nobody should take their mind, or what it is capable of, for granted."
Norman M. Weinberger, research professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of Calfornia-Irvine and a specialist on music's effect on the brain, is skeptical about the effects some groups claim.
"Certainly music and sound can alter mood," he wrote in an e-mail. "Whether there are any long-term effects is another story. ... The main problem is the general lack of both scientific investigation and solid scientific findings that could support the claims. Anything that alters behavior obviously acts through the brain, but the claims go far beyond that."
And the idea of sounds mimicking drugs is "nonsense," said Paul Doering, a professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida and co-director of the Florida Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center.
"My overall reaction to this is it is the next in the series of increasingly technologic ways for people to alter their minds, whether its real or imagined," Doering said. "The power of suggestion is very strong. Like the Ouija board. I could have sworn that thing was moving around."
But that may not be the point.
Jose Szapocznik, chair of the department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that while it's highly unlikely a digital drug can get someone chemically addicted like a real drug, just having a teen download it should send up red flags.
"When your child is looking for an altered state of consciousness because they're bored, or because their world is painful for them ... that's what parents should be worried about."
Gonzalez, the Kendall mother, agrees.
"It's irrelevant whether it works or not," she said. "It's that it's out there and that its available to kids."