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.
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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.
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Sumon Pal, "Chief of Vibes" at Thync, tests a prototype Thync module at his desk at work. The module sends low-energy electrical current that works to energize or relax users.
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.
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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.
Brain-zapping gadgets promise to make you a better you — smarter, stronger, even happier
By Ariana Eunjung Cha