For decades, parents 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 first step toward 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.
Parent Maria Christina Gonzalez of Kendall 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."
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.
Altering the mood
It's no secret that sound can affect moods. Chants and waves have long been used in relaxation and meditation. The bestseller Musicophila: 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 Parkinson's.
I-Dosers and other "digital drugs" typically sound like a low hum, some punctuated with ocean sounds.
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.
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.
Founded in 2005, I-Doser audio sequences have been downloaded more than 1 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.
looking for a match
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.
The goal is "simulated experiences," Ashton wrote in an e-mail. These are accomplished through tests, including brainwave mapping, to get the audio sequences to closely match how the brain responds to an external stimuli.
Although the sounds can be downloaded by anyone, the site includes a disclaimer saying that the sounds are for people older than 18.
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.
"Certainly music and sound can alter mood," he wrote in an e-mail. "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."
Jose Szapocznik, chairman 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, 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."