LAS VEGAS — Jamie Tyler was stressed. He had just endured a half-hour slog through airport security and needed some relief. Many travelers in this situation might have headed for the nearest bar or popped an aspirin. But Tyler grabbed a triangular piece of gadgetry from his bag and held it to his forehead.
As he closed his eyes, the device zapped him with low-voltage electrical currents. Within minutes, Tyler said, he was feeling serene enough to face the crowds once again.
This is no science fiction. The Harvard-trained neurobiologist was taking advantage of one of his own inventions, a device called Thync, which promises to help users activate their body’s “natural state of energy or calm” — for a retail price of a mere $199.
Americans’ obsession with wellness is fueling a new category of consumer electronics, one that goes far beyond the ubiquitous Fitbits and UP activity wristbands that only passively monitor users’ physical activity. The latest wearable tech, to put it in the simplest terms, is about hacking your brain.
These gadgets claim to be able to make you have more willpower, think more creatively and even jump higher. One day, their makers say, the technology may even succeed in delivering on the holy grail of emotions: happiness.
There’s real, peer-reviewed science behind the theory driving these devices. It involves stimulating key regions of the brain — with currents or magnetic fields — to affect emotions and physical well-being. It isn’t too different from how electroshock therapy works to counter certain mental illnesses and how deep-brain stimulation smooths motion disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Indeed, recent studies have looked at the technique as a possible treatment for stroke, autism and anorexia.
Lots of people and companies are making investments, too, from Silicon Valley venture capitalists to large pharmaceutical companies and even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And according to the start-ups selling the products, their technology appears to be safe and effective based on certain, very controlled tests.
But more rigorous research is ongoing, and some of the early results have generated controversy because of how the studies were conducted. Moreover, the gadgets themselves haven’t been independently validated, and, for competitive reasons, many of the entrepreneurs making them have revealed little information about their development and testing. The companies claim the stimuli they utilize are so weak that the products shouldn’t be considered medical devices and subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. To date, the agency hasn’t intervened.
All this has unnerved many neuroscience experts, who worry about putting something that tinkers with the brain in the hands of naive consumer masses.
Kareem Zaghloul, who runs one of the brain labs at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said that even if the devices work as advertised — which is a big if, he stressed — there are also concerns about how they account for individual variability in brain structure and whether enhancing one area of the brain could negatively affect another. No one knows the long-term consequences.
“When you’re dealing with the brain and electrical simulation, there are always possible dangers. We worry about this even with our own work. We think the chances are quite low, but it’s still a potential problem,” Zaghloul said.
Other scientists have issued stronger warnings. Writing in the Journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, one group of researchers argued that “‘non-invasive’ brain stimulation” may sound benign, but it comes with risks as severe as when a body is opened up in surgery. And Marom Bikson, a professor of biomedical engineering at City College of New York, emphasized that the devices are “not play things” and said consumers who use them too much could essentially risk an overdose.
Additional issues, although remote, include possible addiction or sabotage by hackers that could change a code to stimulate undesirable characteristics such as anxiety, fear and aggression.
Tyler, who co-founded Thync and recently returned to academia as an associate professor at Arizona State University, says such concerns are legitimate. Yet he is certain that they can be overcome and that medical-grade brain devices will one day be commonplace and able to, for example, relieve the pain of migraines or treat debilitating neurological conditions.
“Yes, a lot more work still needs to be done,” he said. “But the technology holds tremendous promise. It’s not just about us saying we’re going to stimulate the nerves so you can chill.”
This ever-growing world includes two main types of products. The simplest ones, such as a $299 meditation headband called Muse, measure brain waves with the standard laboratory technology employed by doctors and hospitals. They don’t do anything to try to change or stimulate the brain, but they do provide feedback to users that the companies hope will help them make changes leading to improvements in brain functioning.
The second type of devices work via transcranial direct-current stimulation. With tDCS, weak electrical currents jolt neurons, which can increase or decrease the release of certain chemicals that can inflience how a person is feeling. Halo, a product priced at $549, was secretly tested by members of the U.S. ski team who later claimed that it improved their “jump force” by 31 percent. Another product, made by Foc.us, is a $250 headset that is said to boost gamers’ focus and performance.
Then there’s Thync. One of the early entrants, the company raised more than $25 million in venture funding from such serious backers as scientist Samir Kaul, who is known as the right-hand man of Silicon Valley billionaire and health-tech investor Vinod Khosla.
Its creators claim the small, sleek piece of plastic plus electrodes either calms or energizes a person, depending on the area of the brain where its current is directed. It uses proprietary algorithms that control the tDCS currents, plus another type of stimulation called transcranial pulsed ultrasound.
Thync has been tested on several thousand volunteers, and the company has published one study, in the journal Nature, that involved 82 volunteers in the Boston area and found that a 14-minute session using Thync’s electrical waveforms resulted in stress reduction.
Response from users has been mixed, with about two-thirds of online reviewers writing about how happy they were with the product and about one-third saying they didn’t feel any effects at all.
Early on, the start-up tried to market itself to the hip, early-adopter crowd by promoting the “vibes” that individuals would get. “You know how when you splash cold water on yourself, you become more alert, and when you get a neck massage you feel calmer? Those are the same nerves we’re stimulating,” Tyler explained, describing the electrical pulses as “digital content streamed to your nervous system.”
But early this year, following lackluster sales, Thync tried to switch gears to sell itself as more serious. Co-founder and chief executive officer Isy Goldwasser said at the time that the goal was to make the device a “chemical-free path to manage your energy and stress.”
The company said this month that it’s trying to raise new capital for current and future ventures. Officials declined to comment further.
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