What Tasers Do to the Brain

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Policeman carries a gun on his right and a taser on his left, part of a force protecting members of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement as they held a rally on the steps of the government office building, Toledo, Ohio, United States, North Ameri
Photo: Jim West/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Tasers aren’t known to be the gentlest things, to put it mildly. The devices deliver 50,000 volts of electroshock, and though deaths after use of electroshock weapons — Taser is the brand name — are relatively rare, in 2015, at least 48 people died during interactions with police who used Tasers. Now, a team of scientists at Drexel University and Arizona State University set out to investigate — what are Tasers doing to the brain?

Their results, published recently in the journal Criminology & Public Policy, suggest that the electroshock can impair a person’s cognitive functioning for up to an hour after being Tased, which “questions the ability of … suspects to waive their Miranda rights knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily within 60 minutes of a Taser exposure,” the authors write. For their study, the researchers separated 142 students into four groups. Two of the groups received five-second shocks, one with no preparation, the other after punching a bag, to simulate the high intensity of a police encounter. One of the other remaining groups did nothing, and the other also hit the punching bag. Regardless, the participants were also put through a rigorous set of physical tests to ensure their health and cognitive ability and were barred from drinking alcohol or taking drugs — an important caveat, given that many who are Tasered are later found to have mental-health problems and alcohol or drugs in their system.

Before and after being shocked (or not), the study volunteers took tests intended to measure their cognitive functioning. The groups that had undergone the shocks fared worst, with a quarter of them scoring below average on verbal and memory tests — rates that were equivalent to 79-year-olds. Concentration issues were reported frequently; others mentioned feeling heightened senses of anxiety. They were tested again one hour after the shocks, and the results persisted. “Being shocked had a traumatic effect on some participants,” Robert Kane, a Drexel University professor of criminology and one of the co-authors of the study, said in a statement. “Some were emotionally debilitated by the experience.”

This study is not the first to find Tasers potentially dangerous or damaging: A 2014 Circulation article found that in eight examined cases of people being Tased, seven died from cardiac complications resulting from the delivered shocks.

What’s especially troubling to many experts about this new research, however, is the fact that standard police procedure suggests reading Miranda rights to detainees after they’ve been stunned. And yet the level of cognitive and emotional shock post-Tasering seems to suggest that people who’ve been stunned are in no state to capably make any sort of statement to the police. “If suspects are cognitively impaired after being Tased, when should police begin asking questions?” Kane asked. “There are plenty of people in prison who were Tased and then immediately questioned. Were they intellectually capable of giving ‘knowing’ and ‘valid’ waivers of their Miranda rights before being subjected to a police interrogation?”

Long-term effects of being Tased weren’t measured in the study, though individuals who took part in the study reported feeling emotionally fraught after the experience. And while Tasers offer a nonlethal alternative to guns, their danger shouldn’t be underestimated by the roughly 17,000 police departments using them. (Some have even gone through training to understand firsthand how it feels — a good first step.) As Kane noted: “Tasers are a great alternative to deadly force; when used in lieu of firearms, Tasers can save lives. But using a Taser is not without risk. Although they are considered safe when used on healthy people, people have died from being Tased. They should be treated as a dangerous weapon.”