The idea of sending electrical currents directly into the brain to enhance the body’s capacity for learning may sound like the plot of an ’80s sci-fi horror film, but this is the reality of a number of devices taking neuroscience from laboratories into the home.
One of these products, the Halo Sport, is a US$750 (HK$5,886) piece of non-invasive headwear designed to train the brain, with inventors claiming it can improve any kind of performance that involves physical movement.
It was recently tried out in Hong Kong gym chain Pure Fitness for one month as part of the company’s Innovation Lab, which puts fitness-related technology through its paces before deciding whether to roll it out at all its gyms in the city.
The Halo Sport looks like a chunky pair of headphones that feature three sections of “primers”: rubber spikes on the inside of the headband, designed to deliver a small electrical current through the scalp and into the brain.
“It uses transcranial electrical stimulation,” says Brett Wingeier, chief technology officer at Halo Neuroscience and a biomedical engineer. Before starting the company, he and co-founder Daniel Chao worked at a firm developing devices to control seizures in epileptic patients. Now, the pair are focused on taking brain-based technology to the masses with Halo Sport, which they launched in 2016 after three years of development.
The Halo leverages the concept of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and retain new skills. During childhood the developing brain is said to be most “plastic”, which is why children seem to pick up new languages faster than adults. Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) devices, such as the Halo, “bring neuroplasticity where and when you want it”, as Wingeier puts it, and can be applied to exercise with positive results.
“When you put a small electrical field around neurons, it makes them more likely to fire together. When you train, it’s not just your muscles getting bigger; it’s your brain getting better at controlling your body,” explains Wingeier, who visited Hong Kong in February to launch the Halo’s trial at Pure. “Brain optimisation is a big part of training – neurons firing together and laying down these paths of muscle memory. This technology speeds that up, bringing neuroplasticity when and where you want it. When paired with smart training, you’ll get better faster.”
The basic science behind tDCS dates back more than a century, and some clinical studies have used it to help treat spinal cord injuries depression and epilepsy. The last few years have seen the technology grow in popularity among biohacking enthusiasts looking to improve their memory and learning. What started out as a homespun tangle of wires, sponges and equipment that wouldn’t look out of place in Frankenstein’s laboratory has been distilled into sleek, high-grade wearable systems.
“tDCS is not magic. By itself it won’t make you smarter, fitter or know something you don’t. What it will do, is get you ready to learn, train or discover yourself,” reads the blurb on the website of UK firm foc.us, which sells tDCS products promising to “amp up” the brain. In 2013, it launched a product aimed at video gamers that delivers stimulation through the forehead, the “ultimate advantage”, an advert said. Meanwhile, the Halo primarily targets fitness enthusiasts, a community forever seeking new ways to quantify progress and maximise efficiency.
After assessing scientific literature around tCDS, the Halo team decided that the brain should be stimulated for no more than 20 minutes, resulting in an hour of increased neuroplasticity. A single charge lasts about seven sessions and the set can be shared among multiple users, as long as it is disinfected between each use.
The over-ear design – you can take the primers out to listen to music just like a normal pair of headphones – ensures the wearer doesn’t attract too many stares in a public place, explains Wingeier.
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The motor cortex – the area of the brain that controls motor functions – lies directly beneath the part of the skull where a headphone’s headband sits. The primer spikes penetrate through the hair and rest on the scalp. Bald people will experience the easiest connection, while those with very thick hair might struggle to wiggle the primers down to scalp level.
The stimulation is triggered via Bluetooth by the Halo Sport app – free on iOS and Android. The app is used to control the intensity of the voltage and the section of the motor cortex that is targeted. For example, someone working out would select the “legs, core and arms” session, while a musician or gamer would choose “hands and fingers”, which focuses on the brain area responsible for finer motor skills.
When using it for the first time, the sensation is said to be unusual; after their four-week trial, Pure participants reported a tingling or prickling sensation in the scalp.
“You start at level five and you can’t really feel much,” says Adrian Badenhorst, one of the participants. “You put the headset on and have to push the [primer] nibs close to your head, so you’ve got the feeling of this thing pushing on your head. Then when you turn the intensity up, it feels like the nib has got sharper, like a needle. It feels like you’ve made your headphones too tight. It can get itchy over the course of 20 minutes but it’s not a bad feeling, just unusual.”
For the 25-year-old pilot and former competitive bagpipe player, who started a new health and fitness programme in January, the Halo helped boost his focus and improve his posture. The South African says the device will remain part of his repertoire. “My job involves sitting for a long time, and I’ve always been prone to back injury. It’s helped a lot with my form,” he says.
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He used the Halo before spinning classes at the gym or weightlifting sessions with a personal trainer. “I’ve definitely lifted things that I hadn’t been able to before,” he says. “There wasn’t a considerable increase but a few kilos here and there. It’s almost like you focus but don’t have to put in 110 per cent just to move … I reach a plateau sometimes where it feels like I’m doing the same workout over and over, and don’t know how to improve. This has been an extra thing helping me.”
Studies published as recently as last year have concluded that, while no adverse effects of transcranial stimulation have been reported, further investigations are needed to determine the safety of these products. In 2016, a group of four researchers from the US published an open letter in the journal Annals of Neurology addressed to “do-it-yourself users of tCDS”, advising caution, due to the technology’s risks, including skin burns and equipment failure. They warned that “other problematic issues may not immediately be apparent” and that “indirect effects of stimulation on connected brain networks may alter brain functions that are unintended.”
“It was a pretty reasonable statement,” says Wingeier. “It’s never simple to take a technology from the laboratory or a clinic and translate it into something people can use at home. Everyone making a device like this has the obligation to speak very clearly about it; it’s not juicing you up. That also means there’s no instant results – it’s an incremental effect.”
Consumer application of tCDS technology is still a new field, and the scientific community at large is wary of standing behind claims regarding the efficacy of the technology for something as complex as fitness. However, the Halo founders boast a number of case studies, where US sports teams reported improved strength and speed during short-term trials of the product.
“There’s no substitute for motivation. You still need it to get out there and train,” Wingeier concludes. If the novelty of wearing a pricey, futuristic-looking headset gives you that, then you’ll see improvement regardless of whether your neurons are firing to the max. Sometimes all it takes is that spark.
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