Wearable tech to hack your brain

Brain stimulation is a real but unproven area of technology for tinkering with the human brain.

Story highlights

  • Brain stimulation technology seeks to alter things like moods and ability to learn
  • Consumer neurotechnology devices could be a major market in the coming years
  • Makers of new consumer device coming next year say it can impact focus, energy
The technology sounds simultaneously fake and dangerous: Strap on a headset and send targeted electrical currents into your brain for about 15 minutes to get more energy, improve your focus or calm down.
Brain stimulation is a very real but still unproven area of technology for tinkering with the human brain. For decades, scientists have experimented with sending electrical currents through subjects' skulls to their brains to do everything from treating serious mental disorders like depression to improving memory and learning.
Now Silicon Valley is hoping it can turn brain stimulation tech into sleek wearable devices for consumers. Is it really possible to make the jump from the lab to Best Buy shelves?
The latest company to attempt to create a consumer brain stimulation product is Thync, a start-up with a serious pedigree. Founded by entrepreneur Isy Goldwasser and neuroscientist Jamie Tyler, who has a PhD in psychology and behavioral neuroscience, Thync has been working on its device secretly for the past three years. It's a portable headset that will offer three settings to start: energy, relaxation and focus.
"For some people it would be their third cup of coffee, for some people it would be their afternoon nap," said Goldwasser.
One of the primary technologies Thync is based on is transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, which uses a weak electrical current to change the sensitivity of neurons in the brain. Neurons are cells in the brain that send electrical signals to each other, resulting in the release of chemicals that impact what a person is thinking or feeling. When targeted to the right area, the tDCS currents can create changes in how a person's brain is functioning.
With the potential to replace everything including a soda habit, yoga class or pharmaceuticals for mental disorders, the market for brain stimulation devices that are proven to work is potentially huge. The U.S. military has even experimented with it as a way to improve pilot training. Thync is focusing on small improvements for already healthy minds.
"The users are going to be people who really have busy lives and really need tools besides chemicals, drugs or alcohol," said Goldwasser. "They'd like another approach to change their mental state."
It's not the first commercial product to use tDCS. Foc.us is a $250 headset that uses tDCS to help gamers increase focus and performance while playing video games. There is an expansive community of people who experiment with do-it-yourself tDCS headsets they make using tutorials found online and equipment found at a local Radio Shack.
Even with a number of respected studies on brain stimulation, it's still not clear if these techniques have an impact.
"I think most people would agree that the jury is still out about whether tDCS ... has any proven therapeutic or cognitive enhancement effects," said Charan Ranganath, a professor at the Center for Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis.
Research into the effectiveness of tDCS and other brain stimulation methods is still considered to be in the early stages, and there are doubts in the neuroscience community about early results.
"Some of the published studies have small sample sizes, don't adequately address placebo effects, and they often use weird measures of memory or cognition that can be hard to interpret," said Ranganath. There is also a tendency to only publish studies that have positive results while ignoring the ones with negative results.
If tDSC does work, creating the same desired effect in different people is difficult, even in tightly controlled laboratory studies where the equipment is set up and handled by experts. To make tDCS work, the currents must hit specific target areas in the brain which vary greatly for each person. Everyone's head is shaped differently and if it's off by a small amount, a tDCS device could have a drastically different impact.
Even if it does hit the right spot, there's no guarantee a signal will impact people the same way. For example, some people function really well after a morning cup of coffee while others have the opposite reaction to caffeine.
"The idea that the same method will achieve enhancing effects on everyone is probably over simplistic," said Ranganath.
To counter those concerns, Thync is taking its science, safety and testing seriously. In addition to tDCS, it is using an emerging new technique called transcranial pulsed ultrasound, along with custom algorithms and "proprietary neurosignaling waveforms."
"It took us years to find these effects," said Thync's Tyler. "You can't just slap it on your head and jolt your brain .. there is real science."
Thync has already tested its product on more than 2,000 people in as many trials. After using Thync, the subjects answer questions about how they feel and the researchers measure their vitals. If it wants FDA approval down the line, Thync will need to go through extensive clinical trials. Thync plans on having its first product ready by 2015. The California-based company recently secured $13 million in venture capital funding.
It's still too early to know how effective Thync or other future brain stimulation devices will be when they are released. But supporters of the technology think we're just at the beginning of a consumer neurotechnology revolution. Tyler thinks soon these products will be commonplace:
"It is inevitable."