As I tried to scramble my way up a few bouldering routes at my
climbing gym on election day, I focused as much extra
attention as possible on my technique. The goal wasn’t just to
try and distract myself from politics — a little while before,
I’d spent 20 minutes wearing a headset that was designed to
deliver a small electrical current to my motor cortex.
If Halo Neuroscience,
the company behind the Halo Sport headset, is right, a small dose
of electrical stimulation might be enough to help athletes of all
sorts unlock new levels of performance. In theory, priming that
brain region could help it better “learn” skills and movements
that are optimal for any kind of sport.
promising data and a lot of interest in the idea that brain
zapping might improve cognitive — and perhaps by extension,
physical — performance. But that’s not the same as proof. The
science behind this is still uncertain and there’s no widely
accepted study showing we can actually get stronger, faster, or
smarter with a dose of electricity.
In my case, I know that I’m doing it wrong. Dr. Daniel Chao,
co-founder and CEO of Halo, had just told me how they’d recommend
someone train using the headset.
“The ask during training is very thoughtful, deliberate practice
that day, with quality reps,” says Chao. Not quite the same as
hitting a few varied climbing routes, even if they were routes
I’d been working on previously.
In theory, you should be training with a specific goal in mind,
like pushing a bouldering grade up, hitting a faster 2K rowing
time, or setting a new personal record on a biking route. It’s
hard to know how much you’re improving with training if you don’t
have specific goals.
Also, the “neuropriming effect” that Halo theoretically provides
lasts for about an hour after you use the device, according to
Chao, and I didn’t start climbing for 35 or 40 minutes. Plus, to
really see improvement, you would need to use the device for a
number of different training sessions.
“To see an effect with a pro athlete we’ll need a couple of
weeks,” says Chao, since a professional is already likely close
to their personal peak potential, making it harder for them to
improve. “With someone relatively untrained we can show effects
much earlier, give us a couple days.”
So I knew that without the timing or the deliberate practice
routine or extended use, there was probably no specific
performance boost — and definitely no measurable one — that I’d
get from my climbing session. But just in case there was
any lingering effect, it seemed like a waste to not try to push
through a few routes. And that shows the almost irresistible
appeal of something that might help you improve, even if
you aren’t convinced that it really can.
Zapping your brain with electricity
Halo’s Sport device is basically a way of delivering electricity,
specifically transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), to
the brain — just an easy way to get that current to a general
region. The headset looks like a fairly large pair of headphones,
with what look like foam positioning spikes to let it rest on
your head. Really, those are the “primers,” electrodes, which
deliver between 1.4 and 2.1 milliamps of electricity to the
The position of your motor cortex, the brain region that directs
voluntary movement, made the shape of headphones a perfect
delivery device, according to Chao. Positioning it on head was
pretty easy. At first, the connected phone app reported a bad
connection, but once I pushed the foamy “spikes” through my hair,
it gave the all-clear signal.
It turns out a mild dose of electrical stimulation is not
uncomfortable. There’s a noticeable tingling sensation, not
strong enough to be called a sting. For whatever it’s worth, you
definitely feel something.
There’s a long history of using electricity to affect the brain.
Pliny the Elder of Rome used
shocks from the Atlantic torpedo ray to treat headaches. In
modern times, doctors directly place electrodes into people’s
brains for medical purposes. Before founding Halo Neuroscience,
Chao, who got both his M.D. and his master’s in neuroscience at
Stanford, worked at a
company that makes a brain implant that uses small electric
pulses to stop seizures in epilepsy patients.
Stimulation that goes through the skull is obviously far less
targeted to a specific region than simulation with a brain
implant, but it’s also less invasive, which makes it more
appealing for healthy people. If it works.
By this point in time, you’ve probably read something about
people zapping their brains to improve them. There are several
stories out there about military projects that train snipers
drone pilots while giving them electrical stimulation.
“[E]lectrical as well as magnetic stimulation shows promise in
the enhancement of cognitive functions,” Ruairidh Battleday and
Anna-Katherine Brem, Oxford scientists who research techniques
drugs that can boost brainpower, told me
a few months ago. It’s an idea that a lot of people are
What we know about the Halo Sport device
But does that mean the Halo Sport can help people improve?
Chao described to me the studies that the company has conducted.
They’ve used sham stimulation (electricity, but not strong enough
to penetrate the skull) to have a placebo group and compared them
to the group receiving real stimulation. They’ve tested for
things like skill acquisition, with study participants learning
play piano chords, a marker of dexterity. They’ve tested for
strength and explosiveness with experiments on
training grip strength. While working with elite
athletes, they’ve worked on improving lower body
strength. That Halo study showed that a small group of
athletes receiving stimulation improved lower-body strength and
explosiveness by 12% in a period of a few weeks while those
receiving sham stimulation improved only 3%.
In these and other company studies, participants receiving real
stimulation improved significantly more than those receiving sham
brain zapping. But so far, these are all internal studies,
they’re not peer reviewed papers published in journals.
Chao tells Business Insider that they’ve submitted two papers for
journal publication, but they have not yet been accepted (he
hopes this could happen before the end of the year, though it
could still be some time after that before they are published).
Before that happens, it’s hard for other experts to
say whether or not the headsets work.
“The evidence is simply not there that tDCS can improve basic
motor learning, let alone complex athletic learning,”
neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath
told Kate Knibbs at The Ringer.
The unproven nature of brain stimulation makes some scientists
pause when they think of healthy people applying electricity to
their brains. Earlier this year, a group of researchers published
open letter in the journal Annals of Neurology cautioning
D.I.Y. users about some of the risks involved, including the
possibilities that users would alter brain regions they didn’t
intend to target, or that by boosting one ability, users could
unexpectedly dampen another mental process. Many scientists have
questions about how specific an effect you can see by broadly
stimulating the brain. Brain stimulation “is more of a shotgun
approach than a scalpel approach,” Michael Weisend, a
neuroscientist at Wright State Research Institution,
told me in November of 2014.
Chao says that their device is designed with safeguards to
protect users, unlike many devices people might build on their
own at home. And he says they know they aren’t stimulating just
the motor cortex, but that some mild stimulation to surrounding
regions may help. Again, until Halo’s data is published in peer
reviewed journals, the only data we have comes from the company’s
studies. While that data is interesting,
other scientists want to see more before they are convinced.
The future for Halo
Some have already fully embraced the Halo Sport device —
professional athletes especially. Most recently, the company
announced that several NFL players have been using the headset.
“As a result of training with Halo Sport, my standing vertical
jump has increased 6-8 inches,” T.J. Carrie, a cornerback with
the Oakland Raiders said in a press release. “In addition I’ve
added over 80 pounds to my squat max.”
Previously, a number of
Olympic athletes announced they’d been using the device while
preparing for the summer games. Several players on the Golden
State Warriors team that made their way to the NBA Finals this
year were also reportedly
using a Halo device for brain stimulation.
The company is now
selling the device to the public as well (they previously had
only been taking pre-orders), currently at a price of $699,
though they say that will rise to $749.
Is it worth it? We really don’t know for sure — pro athletes and
academics are interesting comparison points. Athletes are
known for jumping on anything that might help them get an
edge, it almost doesn’t matter whether something works or whether
it triggers the placebo effect, as long as it helps them improve
(in a particularly interesting twist, some scientists
have speculated that tDCS may enhance the already-powerful
placebo effect). Academics, on the other hand, are known for
their justifiable skepticism, not wanting to buy into or believe
anything until they can see peer-reviewed data.
Chao says that eSports gamers (for whom lightning-fast reactions
are essential) have shown interest and that perhaps they’ve seen
the most interest from the US Military.
In a speech this summer, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the
DOD had partnered with Halo so that special forces troops could
test the devices. “These headsets will be used by teams from our
special operations forces who will work with Halo to gauge how
effective their device might be to improving marksmanship,
close-quarters combat skills and overall strength training,”
For his part, Chao thinks we may see wide adoption of brain
stimulating headsets. He says that in the future they may
expand beyond athletics into other areas, like language learning.
After all, if we do get to a point where it’s widely accepted
that brain stimulation enhances physical or cognitive
performance, it would be a lot harder to turn down a dose of
brain stimulation (hopefully we’ll have good long-term safety
data by then).
“Think about the things you don’t even start because it takes too
long to learn,” says Chao. “One day you may think it’s silly to
try to learn anything that’s difficult without neurostimulation.”
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