One of the growing trends in neuroscience is the development of neuro technologies and neuro-wearable products, marketed to bring the benefits of neurofeedback and neurostimulation to your workplace and personal lives. These products, such as Apollo, COVE, Muse, Halo and Happbee, tout benefits such as decreased stress and anxiety, more focused and beneficial meditation, improved mental math speed, and even a better night’s sleep. These devices present incredible potential, but does the science really back up the hype? As brain geeks, we decided to dig deeper. Here’s what you need to know about the growing market of neuro-wearables.
How These Devices Work: Most non-invasive neurostimulation devices rely on a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which uses electrical currents to non-invasively target and stimulate parts of the brain. People are making their own DIY version at home using batteries and electrodes (although neuroscientists say to proceed with caution) or you can buy a productized version such as the Halo headband.
The Science: Studies have demonstrated improvements in various aspects of performance as a result of using tDCS, from better athletic metrics to improved memory and cognitive scores. However — pay attention because this next point is critical — it remains an open question as to exactly how tDCS causes these improvements. Scientists found that only 10% of the electrical current from tDCS reaches neurons in the brain, with the other 90% getting absorbed by the scalp and skin. Some scientists believe this 10% still might be enough to influence brain activity and change behavior and performance — but just not in the way we might think. For example, rather than directly activating neurons, these devices might be acting through another mechanism, such as activating glial cells (the brain’s immune cells, and the second most prevalent cell type in the brain after neurons) or promoting brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, a protein involved in neuroplasticity).
The Risks & Benefits: Non-invasive neuro-wearables are considered lifestyle rather than medical devices, which means they are NOT required to pass certain measures such as FDA approval. While this does not mean they are dangerous, it does mean they might not have been thoroughly vetted for all potential risks before going to market.
Remember, especially given the unknowns around the underlying mechanisms, users should always do some due-diligence to educate themselves on a product before taking the plunge. Three solid resources to start learning more include:
- a 2018 open letter to the DIY neurostimulation community highlighting considerations consumers should become aware of;
- a 2019 team of neuro-ethicists review of the current product lineup which found heavy marketing emphasis on benefits with little discussion of risks;
- and the American Psychiatric Association in-depth analysis and guide to help consumers evaluate brain-related apps and wearables.
The Short Story? These devices show promise. Many reputable academic institutions have even partnered with neuro-wearables companies to pursue research using their devices. However, there’s still so much more to learn about how the devices work and how to use them most effectively and safely.
Our Own Tests and Testimonials: We’ve tested out some of these devices ourselves. Here are a few of our impressions.
Oura Ring: For the past year, Daisy has used an Oura ring to track sleep stats and other biometrics (heart and respiratory rate, steps, calorie burn, etc). “The main change it has brought into my life is accountability. Knowing I’ll look at my sleep graph and total hour count when I wake up has motivated me to be more proactive about getting to bed early the night before. It also helps me recognize when I’m having an off day and to give myself permission to take it easy when I know my sleep has suffered.”
Apollo: During COVID lockdown, Wendy tried the Apollo (after learning about it from a popular “Bio Hacking” podcast). “The device itself looks like a large Fit Bit and can be worn on your wrist or ankle. Using an App, you can set the device to a variety of settings (focus, calm, meditation) and it will deliver a small constant electrical pulse based upon these settings. Did it improve my concentration, stress and focus? Perhaps a bit. What Muse did was make me be more mindful and attentive while I was wearing it. For example, for a big Zoom meeting or presentation, I would wear Apollo to remind me of my intention – to be focused and speak slowly. The gentle pulses were a nice reminder.”
Muse: Another device Wendy started using when it first came out 3 years ago was Muse, which is used during meditation. “Muse is a headset that passively senses real-time brain activity during meditation and then translates the activity into sounds. It is used to see if you are really calming and quieting your mind during meditation. The app offers different guided meditations and sound options. If you hear more sounds (like wind and rain getting louder) it means your thoughts are bouncing around. The sounds get quieter when you have clear focused attention. I used it for a few months, but found the headset and sound waves very distracting in my daily mindfulness meditation practice so I set it aside. However, I did give the device to a few coaching clients who love tech and wanted to learn to meditate. Some thought it was a fun “toy”. I believe that there are a few great meditation apps in the market (Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer) that are more beneficial.”
Now it is your turn. What neuro-wearable products have you tried? Which ones are you curious about? Please share your reviews and thoughts in the comment area below.
Wendy Swire, Leader/ Founder of the DC Neuroleadership Group
Daisy Banta, Head of Research, DC Neuroleadership Group