Doctors have been zapping brains with electricity for a long time. The practice dates back to Ancient Rome, when bad headaches were treated by placing a live torpedo fish, with its electrical charge, on the suffering person’s forehead.
Thankfully, we’ve moved beyond fish to more sophisticated ways of jolting brains, and electrical currents have become an increasingly common treatment for Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and depression.
But now scientists are taking brain stimulation in new directions, ones that have more to do with self-improvement than dealing with medical conditions.
Imagine headphones that use electrical charges to help people get better at sports.
Priming the brain
Actually, you don’t have to imagine them. A startup called Halo Neuroscience has unveiled a headset designed to stimulate neurons in the motor cortex, the part of the brain that coordinates movement. According to Halo co-founder, David Chao, the device, called Halo Sport, can help athletes perform better by making it easier for them to build muscle memory.
This works through a technique known as transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). Low-voltage pulses of electricity are sent through the headset's small foam spikes into the brain, and that primes neurons to fire and build new, stronger connections. It’s tied into what neuroscientists refer to as the brain’s plasticity, or its ability to learn and retain skills through forming new neural pathways.
Chao points out that just putting the headphones on doesn’t make someone a better athlete. They should be used with a training session, when the primed neurons can help a person’s brain more quickly register and remember physical movements. In short, the athletes are training their brains as they train their muscles.
Whatever the athlete is working on is learned faster and becomes more ingrained, Chao says. The technique, he says, also can spur the brain to activate more muscle fibers during a workout, and that can help him or her build strength more rapidly.
Boosts in “explosiveness”
Chao has been exploring the impact of electricity on the brain for a while now. In 2013, a device he worked on with biomedical engineer Brett Wingeier was approved by the FDA to treat epilepsy. When it detects abnormal brain electricity signaling an epileptic seizure, the implant delivers a small electrical charge to stop it. But as an implant, it requires surgery. Chao wanted to find a less invasive way to stimulate brains.
So he and Wingeier went out on their own, and sharpened their focus on methods of affecting neurons from outside a person’s head. They thought it made the most sense to look at the effect on sports performance because that was something they could more easily quantify—although one of their first tests was to see how external stimulation might affect how quickly someone could learn a sequence of chords on a piano. (Those who wore the headsets reportedly mastered the chords 40 percent faster.)
They then started testing with athletes, including a small group from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Four times per week, for two weeks, they were measured as they jumped onto an unstable platform, and, according to Halo, those who trained with the headphones improved their “jump force” by 31 percent, almost twice as much as those who didn’t use them. Later, athletes training at the Michael Johnson Performance Center in Texas—including a number of college football players preparing for the NFL draft—used the headphones for two weeks. Halo says they averaged a 12 percent improvement in “explosiveness” while performing such exercises as squat jumps and counter jumps.
Chao and Wingeier believe an adapted version of the headset could one day be used to help stroke victims regain their physical capabilities. Once they complete more clinical trials, they will seek FDA approval of such a device. For now, they’re concentrating on convincing professional and other accomplished athletes that priming their brains with electricity should become as much a part of their warmups as stretching and listening to their favorite playlists.
A question of risk
But what about the rest of us?
Chao certainly doesn’t think the device should be limited to those immersed in intense sports training. In fact, in a recent article he co-authored in Tech Crunch, he suggests that once “weekend warriors” start to use neurostimulation to boost their speed and strength, “tDCS devices could become as commonplace as step counters.”
Maybe not with the expected $750 price tag. But the fact that the headsets, which will become more widely available this fall, are being marketed to the general public has raised concern among some scientists.
Yes, there are studies with evidence that this kind of brain stimulation can boost physical performance, including a recent one at the University of Kent that found priming parts of the brain enabled cyclists to pedal longer before they got tired. But skeptics say it’s too soon to sell these devices directly to consumers.
For instance, John Krakauer, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, contends that the role of the motor cortex in determining a person’s athletic ability still isn’t clearly understood. “I’m not saying the whole thing is a crock,” he has said, “but it may not be doing what we think it’s doing.”
Others point out that while the Halo headphones may be perfectly safe in a controlled situation, such as a sports training gym, there may be more of a risk for a person using them unsupervised at home. No one knows for sure how much use may be excessive. In other words, it may be possible to zap your brain too much.
“When you’re dealing with the brain and electrical stimulation, there are always possible dangers,” Kareem Zaghloul, a scientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told the Washington Post. “We worry about this even with our own work. We think the chances are quite low, but it’s still a potential problem.”
But Chao is all in. He says the consensus of the scientific community is that neurostimulation is both safe and effective, and he goes so far as to suggest that devices that prime neurons could become a $10 billion market, providing all kinds of opportunities to improve ourselves.
“Ultimately, one device could have the ability to stimulate any surface region of the cortex, unlocking potential in the human brain and body in an unprecedented way,” he writes in the Tech Crunch article. “What were once Herculean feats may become everyday human activities.”