Medical experts disagree about the efficacy and even the safety of neurostimulation, where electrical currents are sent through a subject’s head. In spite of the controversy, or perhaps because of it, MIT Technology Review featured an article about Halo Neuroscience’s Halo Sport: neurostimulation headphones the company claims can enhance athletic performance.
Halo Neuroscience CEO Dan Chao claims the headphones’ mild stimulation, called transcranial direct-current stimulation (TDCS), makes it “slightly easier for the neurons to fire.” The Halo Sport is marketed to elite athletes who want to get an edge on training. Stimulating the motor cortex is said to not only helping the athletes learn new movements but also perform them better. The company’s first customer was the U.S. military.
According to MIT Technology Review, some scientists have shown in the past that mild neurostimulation “more or less” makes neurons likely to fire and have shown evidence that it can improve cognition, improve motor skill learning, and aid in stroke recovery. Other researchers say it could be dangerous to market neurostimulation technology to consumers and cannot aid athleticism. Saying that Halo Neuroscience “absolutely” intends to publish in peer-reviewed journals, Chao includes data on the company’s website from independent studies that show that mild neurostimulation has helped subjects learn to play the piano, generate force pinching a strain gauge when paired with practice, and, along with athletic training, improve jumping ability.
Calling foul, John Krakauer, a professor of neurology and neuroscience and the director of the Brain, Learning, Animation, and Movement Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says “It’s disingenuous to claim that direct-current stimulation of the motor cortex can enhance athleticism. The role of the motor cortex in learning, much less in athleticism, is not fully understood,” he says. Krakauer also stated that existing peer-reviewed research took place in controlled settings and involved “isolated, simple tasks.” Flavio Frohlich, professor of psychiatry said it’s too early to make claims about the effectiveness of mild neurostimulation because there have been few controlled studies with large numbers of subject and with proper control groups. Frohlich also believes it should not be commercialized without medical oversight because so little is known about long-term effects on the brain.
Chao states that the Halo Sport only helps when used along with rigorous training and that it’s just “one tool in an athlete’s tool chest.” With the choices some elite athletes make in the name of performance, Chao’s assertion fails to reassure. It would be much more convincing and helpful, though undoubtedly less sexy or remunerative, to see controlled studies of stroke victims how to speak clearly or regain mobility using neurostimulation to improve the results of their efforts.