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KSL 5 News investigates 'digital drugs'



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Lori Prichard reporting
Produced by Linda Williams

SALT LAKE CITY -- The vast world of cell phone applications offers consumers a variety of experiences. You can use apps to check the weather and find the latest sports scores. There are even applications that turn your phone into a metal detector. But did you know there are applications that claim to get you high?

They're known as digital drugs -- or i-Dosing. These downloads claim to offer the same experience as drugs, mainly illegal drugs, by simply slipping on a set of headphones and listening to binaural beats -- tones that are intended to trick the brain, alter brainwaves and provide a similar chemical experience. The makers of these beats promise a legal "high" from sound instead of substance.

Digital Drugs

Digital drugs can be found all over the Internet. They are tones, beats and mixed sounds that are sometimes paired with pictures or video. And some, like the "Gate of Hades," promise to provide "near-death experiences" for $199.95 or less.

KSL 5 News investigates 'digital drugs'

"It sounds like, kind of like a washing machine and an air raid siren -- at the same time," said one man who was found conducting an unscientific test of digital drugs on YouTube.

Like him, dozens of others are trying, taping and posting videos of their digital drug experiences online. Many videos show young teenagers laughing uncontrollably and acting delirious. Others seemed to experience intense physical reactions: heavy breathing, tense muscles, slamming their fists on the ground and arching their backs as if possessed.

But are these videos showing the real effect of what one would experience listening to these digital drugs? KSL hit the streets to put these binaural beats to an unscientific test.

Beats on the streets

We stopped nearly a dozen people to find out what they knew or didn't know about digital drugs. The first question: Have you heard of digital drugs?

"No," said Justin Brooks and Lizz Dial.

"I have never heard of this," said Kim Fuller, a parent of teenagers.

"No, no. Never heard of it," said Daniel Lorenzo.

"Oh, I've heard of it before," said Takayuki Kamiya, the only person we spoke with who had heard of digital drugs.

Next we played a beat called "The Gate of Hades," an i-Dose claiming to simulate near death experiences.

"I'm getting a little dizzy," said Brooks.

"Oh yeah. That was a little trippy," said Dial.

"Oh! That was weird! Try that again," said Lorenzo. "I don't know. For some reason, like, my arm feels kind of heavy."

KSL speaks with Dr. Glen Hanson, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah and drug researcher for 30 years.
KSL speaks with Dr. Glen Hanson, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah and drug researcher for 30 years.

"Are your arms going limp? Feeling a little woozy?" We asked Austin Wright listening to the binaural beat. Wright responded, "No. Not at all (laughs)."

"Seems kind of stupid to me," said Eric Maughan.

"Yeah, I think so, yeah," said Maren Sargent.

"It could have a little bit of a placebo effect, so if they think it's going to happen it's actually going to happen," said Dial.

But does the placebo effect explain the strange reactions and bizarre behavior exhibited on the dozens of videos posted on YouTube? Utah experts say it might.

Binaural beats

The technology behind digital drugs dates back to 1839. Prussian physicist Heinrich W. Dove discovered if two sounds are played at slightly different frequencies, one to each ear through a set of headphones, the brain would perceive a subsonic pulse called a binaural beat.

"It's based on the idea of brainwave synchronization, or sometimes called brainwave entrainment," says Dr. Matt Woolley, a University of Utah psychology professor and adolescent psychologist. "The idea is that you can change a person's state of consciousness by changing the frequency of their brainwaves."

In this case, the intended state of consciousness is a drug-like euphoria. Sellers of digital drugs claim their binaural beats will produce the same effects as drugs of substance, including methamphetamine, LSD, marijuana and alcohol -- even prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Adderall.

"Those claims are out there, but there is no science whatsoever that supports that the binaural beat, or this auditory phenomenon, will change the brain chemistry in the same way that drugs of abuse will change," says Dr. Glen Hanson, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah and drug researcher for 30 years.

Hanson says despite the lack of science, adolescents are vulnerable to the suggestion. He says teenagers, in particular, seem to be interested in "anything that promises a unique experience," including sounds that could get them high. But he says these beats are relatively harmless.

"It's not going to do anything that will cause an addiction or dependence per se," says Hanson.

"Some kids, teenagers, who are really intent on having an outcome may have a mild placebo effect which, you know, that they may experience as an altered state of consciousness, which is likely to be pretty mild and short-lived," says Woolley. "I think kids will just lose interest pretty quickly."

Dr. Matt Woolley, a University of Utah psychology professor and adolescent psychologist, says parents have recently been asking him about digital drugs.
Dr. Matt Woolley, a University of Utah psychology professor and adolescent psychologist, says parents have recently been asking him about digital drugs.

Even the sellers admit their doses may not work. One website says users fall into three categories:

  • Susceptible to binaural beats
  • Originally unsusceptible to binaural beats
  • Immune to binaural beats

The site also says some users have to listen several times before they feel any type of effect.

Hanson says he's seen many products like these pop up on the market throughout the years promising a drug-like high with sound, but they typically don't last very long.

"It never has much of a basis. It's usually very faddish," Hanson says. "It comes in, sells a few products and then it disappears fairly quickly."

Still, there is some concern. Woolley says parents have recently been asking him about digital drugs. He tells them it's not what their kids are listening to -- it's why.

"If you have a child that's really interested in this, they are probably also very interested in using the traditional drugs that we're worried about," says Woolley.

"In this case it turns out to be relatively harmless," says Hanson. "But it may identify an attitude that the next thing they look for may not be so harmless."

So according to the experts, the theory that these auditory tones mimic a drug-like effect is false.

Still, it's a cautionary tale for parents to watch what their kids are doing online.

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