At this week's meeting, we discussed a somewhat controversial neuroscience company and speculated whether the company's products and its claims were legitimate, or purely hype. In this blog post, I will incorporate some outside research in order to dive a bit deeper into the questions you all came up with during our discussion. The main areas of curiosity I noticed during the meeting revolved around the safety of stimulation, regulation of such neurotechnology, and the reliability / accuracy of Halo's claims.
Neurostimulation: Is it Safe?
Neurostimulation, or neuromodulation, is the application of an electrical current to a certain area of the brain in order to alter neural activity within that region. There are a variety of applications of neurostimulation, with varying effects depending on the current used, the invasiveness of the stimulation, and the region of the brain being stimulated. For example, cochlear implants use neurostimulation to directly stimulate the auditory nerve and evoke a response (hearing) in deaf people for whom that response was previously absent. In the case of Halo, they are using neurostimulation to improve people's athletic or movement-based performance, so improving and refining the efficiency of a response that was already there.
Halo Neuroscience's sport headphones use tDCS, or transcranial direct current stimulation, to stimulate the motor cortex and use the concept of neuroplasticity to increase the number of neural connections through a process that Halo dubs as "neuropriming." This puts the person in a state of "hyperlearning" so that they can learn certain movements better, whether it be a dance, playing a certain instrument, or a sport.
Despite the concept of neurostimulation seeming intimidating, as it involves a low-level electrical current delivered to the brain, it actually is a safe method that can have profound results. Neurostimulation, or neuromodulation, comes in a variety of forms and is often used to treat chronic pain. One example is deep brain stimulation (DBS), which is used to treat depression and Parkinson's disease. While tDCS is noninvasive, DBS involves the placement of an electrode deep in the brain in order to regulate abnormal neural impulses.
As for side effects, there actually are very few symptoms associated with tDCS, which is the method of neurostimulation that Halo uses, and even then these are very rare to actually experience. These symptoms include an itching / tingling sensation during stimulation, headaches, and maybe some red marks where the electrodes sat since they need to be fairly tight on your scalp. In addition, someone speculated at our meeting whether you could become dependent on tDCS, and if you're learning would be impacted when you did not have the stimulation. The simple answer is no. tDCS is simply going to aid neuroplasticity through electrical stimulation, but that doesn't mean that when you don't have that stimulation you will learn worse than you do normally. Think of it as reading glasses: when you wear your glasses, you see significantly better, but just because you take your glasses off does not mean you become addicted to them or that your vision becomes significantly worse once you take them off. You just go back to your normal vision. As you can see, neurostimulation has been used often in the past few years, and it is much safer than it may seem.
Regulation of Neurotechnology:
Something interesting brought up at our meeting was the question of if something like Halo should be banned for usage in sports. While steroids make you physically stronger, though, it is worthy to note that Halo would not automatically make you a star athlete. It is not going to make you any stronger or faster, it is simply going to make you learn movements better and faster. Whether or not these company claims are true, though, will be analyzed in the last section of this blog post.
So, if Halo did become big, what government sector would oversee its regulation and appropriate usage? Currently, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the testing of neurological medicine devices, or neurotechnologies. However, if products like Halo and beyond were to expand and grow, do we have the necessary infrastructure within the FDA to oversee this? The field of neurotechnology and the science community are very split over the ethics of neurotechnology. It is honestly hard to draw concrete ethical lines for a field that is so new and upcoming. There is too much debate within neuroethics to cover in this blog post, so I will instead link a paper that dives deeper into neuroethics if you are interested, and also a previous blog post I did that discusses neuroethics:
Is it Ethical?
In my opinion, there is not anything particularly dangerous about the Halo product as it is now. Now if there were massive improvements and the domain of consumer neurostimulation grew, then the debate of ethics becomes more complicated.
In addition to the previous section about regulation, ethics becomes debatable when we think about consumer neurostimulation of other regions of the brain besides the motor cortex. It was mentioned at our meeting that stimulating the motor cortex is not particularly dangerous because the motor cortex is so well mapped out. The primary motor cortex has a "motor map" associated with it, and we know which subdivisions of the primary motor cortex are responsible for controlling which parts of the body, as well as how much cortical space in the primary motor cortex is devoted to controlling these body parts. However, what would happen if we stimulated something much more complex and developed, such as the frontal cortex? There have been many studies using tDCS on the frontal cortex, but oftentimes results are variable and not easily replicated. Some papers found that it improved memory, but then in subsequent trials did not see the same drastic improvement in retainment. Other papers found that tDCS may increase mind-wandering, increase dopamine transmission in the brain, or even improve speech fluency. However, we cannot be positive on any confirmed, reliable, and established effects of stimulating the frontal cortex, which may make a product using such a mechanism significantly more unethical than Halo.
Effectiveness / Accuracy of Claims:
We honestly can't be too sure how effective Halo products actually are. The reviews on Halo and its effectiveness vary, and we discussed the probability of it just being a placebo at the meeting. However, tDCS has been proven to be effective and is very common, but in this particular realm of stimulating the motor cortex, the results may be variable depending on the person and methods. For example, if you learn a movement wrong and use Halo to aid that learning,
well then you are going to eventually be amazing at doing that movement wrong. So then, how effective is stimulation of the motor cortex? One study by Dr. Orjon Rroji in 2015 delivered actual tDCS and placebo tDCS to the primary motor cortex (M1) in order to observe if it would have an impact on on how well people learned to perform ballistic movements (in this case flexing the thumb as fast as possible). The researchers found that learning improved in both the experimental and control group overall, but when asked to repeat the movement again after one week, the experimental group who had undergone tDCS did significantly better. Thus, they found that tDCS of the motor cortex aided long-term memory of movements by basically facilitating neuroplasticity through a process similar to long-term potentiation (long-term potentiation is the persistent strengthening of neural synapses by stimulating the synpase at a high frequency).
Something strange that I came across during my research was that the creator of Halo Neuroscience, Daniel Chao, said that they actually saw better results when people who were novices used the Halo Neuroscience headphones to practice, as opposed to people who were already relatively good at a certain movement-related activity. This is because novices experience steep learning curves and can form many new neural connections with Halo Neuroscience as they learn new movements. So, why is the marketing then so heavy towards a more elite audience? Is this a marketing strategy to build more hype and get more people to want their pricey product? Is it a reflection of their company culture? This is one of the aspects of the company that I am personally most curious about. But you should decide for yourself: is Halo Neuroscience a legitimate product, or is it subject to criticism?
Attached below is a link to the Halo Neuroscience company website; decide for yourself whether or not you believe their claims:
Attached below is a link to a video review on Halo headphones by Triathalon Taren: