Will Neuro-Centric Wearables Make Us Better Humans?
A growing number of neuro-stimulative products offer convincing control over performance ability and state of mind
In the past few years, products such as Quell and Celafy have united wearable tech with the science of neural stimulation—traditionally used for inpatient treatment of mental disorders and neurological deficits—for easing physical ailments at home.
However, the trend of neuro-stimulative wearables also has researchers pursuing methods for lifestyle improvement via brain stimulation, too, and stands to give us new control over our brains’ performance and moods in the years to come. PSFK highlights just a few companies working to make these new connections happen.
Halo Neuroscience is working on technology to “boost brain function” and “[elevate] cognitive performance” via headband. Speaking to TechCrunch, Halo co-founder Amol Sarva explained that the company’s tech is being developed to offer not just a remedy but also an edge, as it “stimulates brain function in [both] sick people and healthy people.” He continued,
It makes the brain work better—a wide range of potential effects from accelerating learning to improving body movement control […The] field is a big new area—not just sensing things in the brain or ‘reading’ it, but sending waves into the brain and ‘writing’ to it […] Nobody believed it was real! We didn’t either. Until we tried it.
Halo uses a version of the popular transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) method, which involves “priming” or “inhibiting” brain cells’ firing patterns by sending low levels of electricity through electrodes in certain scalp areas. This makes particular brain cells more or less likely to fire, therefore targeting brain activity toward certain performance standards.
Riskier DIY home kits have lately offered increased focus and better response time via tDCS, too, in addition to self-treatment of pain and mental disorders like depression.
New methods of neural stimulation are also being explored with the goal of lifestyle enhancement. Zen Vibez, for example, promotes the use of vibratory stimulation via headset for mood improvement and “brainwave entrainment” with its wearable. To provide focus, calm, and even migraine relief, the company proposes haptic neural stimulation with binaural beats using low-cost piezoelectric transducers, controllable through Bluetooth 4.0.
Last month, Thync released a study showing that its mood-altering device—which consists of a headset, semi-disposable electrodes, and an app in its Alpha version—can significantly reduce stress. Jamie Tyler, Thync’s Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder, explained to PSFK that the product’s innovative neurosignaling method builds upon the best features of long-standing tDCS and TENS (which causes direct cell firing) by using pulsing currents, lower-level, higher-frequency output, and bio-compatible materials and hydrogels for greater safety and comfort.
Tyler noted that the company’s tests to date have demonstrated a 40 percent reduction in heart rate variability, skin-based fear response, and salivary stress markers in Thync users during the product’s 35 to 60-minute primary effectiveness window.
Thync’s in-house studies have also suggested that the device provides positive secondary effects, too; students who used Thync before exams or a first date’s opening minutes, for example, were able to enjoy a longer window of low anxiety after the Calm vibe “set the tone” within the first hour.
Its testing has revealed a range of efficacy among users but, in the very least, “the device is very, very safe,” said Massachusetts General Hospital’s Joan Camprodon-Gimenez to MIT’s Technology Review. Tyler explained that the product is only intended for consumer use and not as a monitored medical treatment, though he plans to share his research and insight with developers of medical devices.
While he’s optimistic about Thync and similar products, Tyler does expect the “new product category” of neuro-stimulative wearables to take a decade or longer to really take hold:
We’re witnessing the beginning of something transformative. I think people haven’t quite realized that yet, and there are a lot of concerns about what it means to be human if we’re changing our brains.
Over the next 10-15 years, I think this will look very different from how it does today. People [may] use this device as another tool in their arsenal; they already drink coffee, drink alcohol, even watch [movies] to change [their experiences]. It’ll be a growing market, but it’ll take time.
Thync, Zen Vibez, Halo Neuroscience