Olympic Athletes Are Electrifying Their Brains, and You Can Too
It’s a chilly mid-April morning in the Silicon Valley suburb of Menlo Park. The sun climbs wanly above the horizon while techies start up their Teslas and baristas fire up their espresso machines. I’m far removed from my own morning rituals as I shiver in my workout clothes and stride toward a training facility for elite athletes, my mind a jumble of anticipation and curiosity—with just a twinge of apprehension.
In a few minutes, a technician will place a new gadget called Halo Sport on my head, and the seemingly ordinary headphones will send a trickle of electric current into my brain’s motor cortex. That current will stimulate the neurons that send movement commands to my muscles, supposedly making my brain better at transmitting those commands. According to the San Francisco startup behind this device, Halo Neuroscience, pairing the stimulation with physical training can give an athlete the winning edge. The company says its product can make people faster, stronger, more nimble, or better coordinated
The Halo isn’t on the market yet, but it’s already being used in elite athletics—a world where a vanishingly small improvement in performance can mean the difference between finishing first or 18th. Some Olympic athletes, including sprinters and swimmers, used a premarket version of the Halo to prepare for the Rio games. Professional basketball, baseball, and American football teams are also experimenting with it; the company declines to identify those teams, but one basketball player with the Golden State Warriors tweeted a photo of himself wearing the gear. The first batch for general consumers, scheduled for shipment in October, sold out through preorders priced at US $549 (the retail price will be $749).
Last April, I leapt at a chance to try the Halo myself. I’ve been following the recent emergence of brain stimulation technologies, watching with fascination as people electrify their heads in medical and recreational pursuits. At the high end, the trend includes surgically implanted deep-brain stimulators for such applications as helping Parkinson’s disease patients move normally. At the low end, an assortment of noninvasive systems that send current through the scalp are easy and cheap enough for DIYers to try at home. We can all be brain hackers now.
Ready to give it a try? If you want to build your own rig, all you need is a 9-volt battery, some simple circuitry, and a couple of sponge electrodes to strap to your scalp. Over the past few years, enthusiastic self-experimenters have taken to Reddit and message boards to trade tips on the most basic technique for brain stimulation, called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). People also post poignant questions on the forums, asking for advice on using homemade tDCS systems to treat disorders such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.
Now entrepreneurs are bringing out commercial devices, hoping to launch an entirely new category of wearables. These startups don’t make overt medical claims, so they’ve avoided the scrutiny of government regulators thus far. (If you’re merely curious about research studies that use tDCS to treat depression, well, they’re happy to provide information, including detailed charts of electrode placements.) But the dozen or so companies in this nascent market are bolder in declaring how their products make healthy people even better. If you believe the websites, these devices improve memory, focus, creativity, and learning. Do you want to be more socially adept? Better at math? Free of your cigarette addiction? You get the idea.