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Brain-Zapping Headphones Hit the Market

Two startups have recently launched brain-stimulating headphones. One claims that its headphones will improve athletes' ability to work out while the other claims that their product will lift users' mood. Neither product is technically a medical device.

Brian Buntz

A growing number of startups are hoping that transcranial direct current stimulation will be the next frontier in wearables.

One of the entrants in this field, Halo Neuroscience (San Francisco) says its brain-stimulating headphones can make you a better athlete. The company believes that its first product, dubbed Halo Sport, can improve your coordination by sending a 2.0-mA signal to the motor cortex.

Halo claims that if an athlete wears the headphones while working out, that their neurons will react faster than usual, thus improving the athlete's ability to learn.

Halo points to promising results from small non-peer-reviewed studies. In one, the company discovered that the technology helped trial participants to learn more quickly how to play several piano chords. A different study, performed with the United States Ski & Snowboard Association, found that professional skiers who used the technology had 31%. Some members of the U.S. ski team are using the technology in training, according to Halo, as are some Major League Baseball and National Football League athletes.

A Newsweek article states that the company eventually plans on getting FDA clearance to market the company's technology to help boost the effects of rehabilitation for stroke victims.

The company could potentially use the device for cognitive enhancement. While the Newsweek article quotes the company's CEO, Daniel Chao, as saying that the technology could "roll back cognitive aging by 25 years," the report also states that the company prefers to focus on sports applications for the time being.

Another company active in this arena--Nervana LLC (Lake Worth, FL)--says its brain-zapping headphones can improve your mood by stimulating dopamine production by stimulating the vagus nerve. Nervana describes the technology as the "only consumer product that synchronizes nerve stimulation with sound, allowing the user to experience qualities of music never felt before."

The company says that users will feel relaxed when using the headphones for 15 to 45 minutes.

The Nervana system synchronizes the nerve stimulation to the vagus nerve with the music selected by the user.

An editor of the Verge, Dieter Bohn, recently proclaimed that he "might have gotten high" after trying out the brain-zapping headphones but also admitted that he is not convinced that they work. "As for my experience, I don't know if I got high. I definitely felt lightheaded, but it was the kind of light-headedness that makes you unsure whether it's a real effect or if you just forgot to eat lunch and are convincing yourself that it worked," he explained.

Although the company was founded by two medical doctors, Nervana has chosen not to register the device as a medical device choosing to term it an "entertainment device."

Last year, a similar technology--albeit not in a headphone form factor--debuted from Thync (Los Gatos, CA). The company's product is designed to alter a user's mood to make them feel either calmer or more alert. A 2016 review of that device by Digital Trends reports that it is easy and safe to use but complains of its long-term cost and notes that its benefits "won't be felt by everyone."  

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