Can Tech Help You Train Your Brain and Improve Your Mood?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Can technology really help you control your brain? If the startups behind an interesting crop of wearable devices are proven right, then the answer may turn out to be “yes.” Writing for MIT’s Technology Review, Kevin Bullis reports that a startup called Thync will soon begin selling electrodes that you place on your head and neck to improve your mood.

The device was developed by a team of neuroscientists and engineers and consists of a small, curved piece of plastic that snaps onto electrodes and produces pulses of electricity. The companion smartphone app controls the frequency and intensity of the electrical pulses through five to 10-minute long programs that Thync refers to as “vibes.”

Though the amount of electricity that the device produces is small, Thync says that the electricity has a significant impact on key parts of the user’s brain. The energy vibe is intended to make you feel like you’ve had an energy drink, and the calm vibe aims to improve your mood when you’re “frustrated, anxious, or stressed.”  Testing the device himself and on eight other people in his office, Bullis concluded that the company’s claims were plausible, but that the device doesn’t work for everyone. He also reports that it’s too soon to know for sure whether Thync’s hypothesis about how the device works holds true.

The idea of using electricity to affect the brain is hardly new, and doctors use electrical therapies like electroconvulsive therapy, deep brain stimulation, and transcranial magnetic stimulation for a variety of disorders, including Parkinson’s and depression. Thync’s technology differs from these expensive treatments in that it promises significant effects with very low electrical currents, which are safe enough for untrained people to use at home. The device that the startup will begin selling later this year won’t be marketed as a medical device, but the company does hope it will help users with anxiety disorders and other medical problems.

The results of brain stimulation studies are hard to replicate

Thync’s device reportedly improves on a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. In 2000, a researcher named Walter Paulus published a paper showing that applying weak electrical current to specific parts of a person’s head could change the signals that the brain sends to muscles. Since then, researchers have suggested that tDCS can improve brain functions like memory and learning. But while there have been some promising tDCS studies, results haven’t been consistent. A review of 1,000 papers concluded that no results, aside from Paulus’s early results, had been confirmed by more than one research group.

Thync co-founder and neuroscientist Jamie Tyler met Paulus in 2009, but became frustrated after being unable to reproduce the findings of later literature. “I became a little jaded. I went through this whole space and concluded the claims out there are really overblown,” he tells Bullis. He suspected that tDCS devices were working differently than most researchers thought.

Most believed that the devices delivered small amounts of electricity through the skull to affect the underlying parts of the brain. But Tyler surmised that rather than affecting the brain directly, tDCS electrodes were stimulating cranial nerves that lie just beneath the skin — nerves that connect directly to areas in the brain that trigger or suppress the production of stress-related neurotransmitters. Tyler tells the Technology Review that “every one of the effects that’s shown in the tDCS world can be explained via this mechanism.”

So Tyler changed where he placed the electrodes and increased the current levels (without causing pain or skin damage) by using pulses of electricity instead of steady current, and operating at frequencies that don’t stimulate pain receptors. Bullis writes that in his firsthand experience, three or four milliamps of electrical current in a conventional tDCS treatment was “quite painful,” but he couldn’t feel the pulses from Thync’s device at 10 milliamps. At least for the time being, Thync is keeping the exact properties of its “vibes” confidential, and outside scientists will have to wait until the device is released to try to replicate the company’s results.

‘The jury is still out’ on the effects of brain stimulation

Thync isn’t the first company to offer a tech product aimed at helping improve the performance of your brain. A startup called Foc.us makes a device that, like Thync’s, stimulates the brain via electrodes. It uses three different technologies: tDCS, plus transcranial alternating current stimulation or tACS, and transcranial random noise stimulation or tRNS.

As the company’s website explains, with tACS, the electrical current takes the form of a wave that can be set between any two values from -2.0mA to +2.0mA and to use frequencies between 0.1Hz and 300Hz. Random noise is similar to tACS in that a maximum and minimum current are set, along with a frequency, but a key difference is that the signal doesn’t take the form of a wave, and instead oscillates around the set value.

The foc.us is marketed specifically for gamers, who use the headset to improve their focus and memory. Users choose different headsets to place electrodes over different parts of the brain and stimulate different areas. Foc.us notes, “There have been hundreds of different studies conducted at universities around the world with some amazing results. Studies often use novel electrode placements or different electrical current profiles such as alternating current or random noise current. foc.us is designed to give you access to these options in a safe easy to use device.”

But as many have noted, the study of the real effect and value of brain stimulation is still in its early stages. Charan Ranganath, a professor at the Center for Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis, told CNN late last year, “I think most people would agree that the jury is still out about whether tDCS … has any proven therapeutic or cognitive enhancement effects.” (The same could be said for Thync’s results, which were published in the open-access online journal BioRxiv, where papers are not peer-reviewed before publication.)

The effects of the tech on different users could be variable

Assessing the current state of research in the area, Ranganath notes, “Some of the published studies have small sample sizes, don’t adequately address placebo effects, and they often use weird measures of memory or cognition that can be hard to interpret.” Adding to the shortcomings of the body of research is researchers’ tendency to only publish studies that show positive results, ignoring those that would show negative results.

Ranganath also points out a big caveat with the devices that are on the market or currently in various stages of development: There’s no guarantee that an electrical signal will effect every user of the technology the same way. He characterizes the idea that a single method could affect everyone the same way as “over simplistic,” lending credence to the idea that the effects of a device could be variable in a way attributable to factors other than the placebo effect.

Another technology that device makers are leveraging to help you train or control your brain is electroencephalography, or EEG. Muse, for example, is a “brain fitness tool” in the form of a headband; it uses EEG — a technology that hospitals have used for more than a century — to detect changes going on in your brain and guide you toward changing your brain and improving your emotional state.

To use the headband, you connect it to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth and receive real-time feedback as you’re guided through “focused-attention,” which helps you train your focus and concentration. According to Muse’s website, ongoing training over time helps you become “more and more immune to distraction,” and better able to focus. Some think the technology shows promise for patients struggling with anxiety, depression, and stress.

However unproven the currently available devices may be, researchers and commentators alike seem to agree on one benefit: these devices are very safe. As Joan Camprodon-Gimenez, director of the Laboratory for Neuropsychiatry and Neuromodulation at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells Bullis, “The worst-case scenario is it does nothing.”

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