The next wave in wearable technology will attempt to open the mind.
The founders of Halo Neuroscience don't have a tidy elevator pitch for investors. There's no simple, 60-second way to explain the company's plan to sell at-home brain stimulation devices.
"It usually requires a longer discussion, because it will either confuse people, or leave them plastered against the wall," says CEO Daniel Chao.
The San Francisco-based start-up is tight-lipped about what the Halo unit will look like, but it is confirming that the device will rely on something called transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, to channel small amounts of electricity through the brain.
"We want to build a product that's a wearable, that's ridiculously simple and easy to use...we also want it to be aesthetically pleasing, and not scary to look at or to wear," he says.
With the catchphrase "Be Electric," Halo plans to launch its device sometime in 2015. And if you're picturing shock therapy, dial those expectations way back. TDCS uses a far smaller jolt for its intended effect.
"The current we apply is very small: one to two milliamperes. Think of it as being on the same order as the current you get out of a 9-volt battery," says Roy Hamilton, a neurology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
In his laboratory, Hamilton researches how tDCS can be used to restore function in people who have suffered strokes and other brain injuries. It works by placing two electrodes--one positive, the other negative—onto various parts of the scalp.
"This current passing through the brain, it is insufficient to actually cause brain cells to fire at that time," he says. "But it is powerful enough to make very, very small changes in the likelihood that neurons are going to fire over a given period of time."
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The theory is, if you take that small change and multiply it by the billions of neurons in the brain, that adds up to an effect that can be measured. Studies have shown mixed results, but tDCS has helped some people with conditions including depression, anxiety and chronic pain. In otherwise healthy brains, there's also interest in its potential to improve memory, learning, math skills, even visual sharpness. Put on the thinking cap for a 20-minute session, and some people say the world becomes clearer.
While there is no evidence of short-term risks with tDCS, Hamilton says not everyone shows positive gains. He argues the long-term effects are also somewhat muddy.
"It is oversimplified to think about cognition in the brain as some simple switch that you can turn on or off, or turn up or down, by adding electricity to the brain. Brains are complex systems of connections, modulated by connections, modulated by connections," says Hamilton. "So it isn't necessarily the case that if you enhance one type of performance, that you are not inadvertently manipulating some other type of performance that you don't know about in some way that you don't want."
Proving that these devices are safe is going to be critical to their commercial success. Along with Halo, a venture-capital backed company called Thync is also releasing an at-home tDCS unit next year. Going with the catchphrase "Shift/Conquer," early reports suggest the product is going to target mood enhancement. There may be a setting to stimulate, another to wind down.
The company brought on City College of New York professor Marom Bikson to do its clinical trial.
"The short of it, we found that both regular tDCS and the Thync device were very well tolerated. There were no serious adverse events," says Bikson "That means nothing bad happened, that anybody had to go to the hospital or get medical treatment for."
Along with Halo, Thync could help meet a growing demand for low-cost tDCS.
"There is generally a desire among many people to be able to increase their mental performance. I mean, that is not really a surprise," says Bikson. "People do many things for that, you know, they exercise, the meditate, they drink coffee. So, it is not a surprise that people are interested in tDCS as another method to essentially boost brain performance."
There are some companies already selling units, but the ventures are small scale, and the products are far from polished. One customer described his purchase as looking like a homemade bomb detonator. Other early adopters are saving themselves a few hundred dollars by making their own stimulators. YouTube catalogues a range of at-home solutions. With $50 and Radio Shack, you can build one using instructions easily found online.
While it would be nearly impossible for the FDA to regulate that sort of activity, it isn't clear yet if it is going to oversee the commercial ventures. A spokesperson says the agency doesn't comment on products that may be under review. But beyond potential regulation, the idea of cognitive enhancement brings up larger, ethical questions for Hank Greely. He's a law professor and Director of Stanford's Program in Neuroscience and Society, and says, imagine a world where this technology has been perfected, and tDCS can be harnessed to produce really sizeable gains.
Then what? Do only the relatively wealthy get access? Could some people be forced to use it?
"Forced by their employer, forced by the military, forced by their parents, forced by their debate coach, whatever it is," says Greely. "I think those coercion issues are a big deal."
Greely knows we are a long way off from having to tackle those issues.
This is still a relatively young area of science and industry, but its one where Daniel Chao of Halo sees huge potential, if not immediate universal acceptance.
"Early on, we will have people that really embrace this technology and want to use it, but to have the masses really jump on board, I think it will take quite some time," says Chao.
However, with its intrinsic promise of a better version of you, tDCS's move from fringe to mainstream isn't so hard to imagine.