The Halo Sport looks like a pair of headphones, but in addition to playing music, it delivers electric stimulation to the wearer’s brain. Why would people voluntarily zap their heads? Well, Halo claims that if the $699 device is worn during physical training, athletes will achieve their goals faster.

Products like this are becoming a common sight in the news and on crowdfunding web sites. But is there any science behind them, or are they destined for the late-night infomercial wasteland of questionable health gadgets?

The technology underlying most of these brain stimulation devices is transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and there is some research on it. Meta-analyses show promising results for stroke recoverytreatment of depression, and corticomotor excitability, which, yes, is associated with functional performance. But much of this research is very preliminary, with small sample sizes, inconsistent results, and open questions about how it could possibly work.

The preliminary research has led to a lot of positive media coverage, DIY experimentation (notably, much of it using homemade devices costing as little as $20), and a corresponding open letter from neuroscientists politely urging people to maybe use a little caution when attaching 9 volt batteries to their brains. This research is also cited by the creators of this ever-expanding number of commercial wearable devices.

The tricky question is: should companies be selling products based only on early research?

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Members of NBA champions The Golden State Warriors were given early access to a neuroscience wearable.

When deciding if a product is backed by science or only claiming to be backed by science, I look for warning signs. A few I’ve come across:

  • Celebrity review preceding peer review. It’s a good marketing technique, but it often obfuscates a lack of science.
  • Internal studies presented as science, despite lack of peer review. Even when presented as a PDF formatted like a journal article, internal studies are no substitute for published research.
  • Use of buzz terms. “Hyperplasticity” sounds good on an information page, but rarely comes up in scientific literature in this context. Sadly, even “neuroscience” itself is becoming a misused term among questionable commercial ventures. It’s the new “quantum.”
  • Untestable claims. Subjective well-being and rate of improvement are difficult for the average person to measure, let alone separate from placebo effects and confounding variables.

I won’t pick on any specific products, but you can check their web sites and look for the signs. For me, many of them electrify the skeptical parts of my brain.

If tDCS does anything at all (and that is uncertain), there is potential for the development of products that work. Some current products may even work, though when companies perpetually claim to be just on the brink of peer-reviewed research, it’s not encouraging. I believe most neuroscience wearables have not been proven, and the long-term risks and tradeoffs are big unknowns.

The decision to buy or support these products is a judgement call, rather than an empirical question. The science can only reveal that there are potential rewards, potential risks, and a lot of unanswered questions.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


 

Images via Halo Sport, Twitter.

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