Technology & Science

Today's wearable technology can zap your brain, perhaps even safely

The new frontier of wearable technology is interested in how your brain works, and some devices don’t want just to monitor your brain, they want to zap and influence it.

'It’s really interesting … but we really don’t know what we’re doing,' says neuroscientist

Emotiv CEO Dr. Geoff Mackellar, left, and founder and CEO Tan Le, demonstrate their wireless neuroheadset called 'Emotiv' that is meant to help optimize brain fitness performance and measure cognitive health and well-being. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Advances in programming and electronics have led wearable technology from the realm of science fiction to becoming an entire industry in a relatively short time.

There are wearables that tell the user how much to eat, sleep and exercise. There are even wearables for pets.

Now, a new segment of wearables is out to monitor brain activity, while related devices hope to actually influence the wearer's brain.

According to several neuroscientists, this is promising — but scientifically murky — territory.

"It's really interesting because there are effects, and people are studying it, but we really don't know what we're doing," said Dr. Ferdinando Mussa-Ivaldi with a laugh. He is a professor at Northwestern University in Illinois who studies robotics and neuroscience.

'Partial, almost insignificant picture'

Some products on the market now measure brain activity by applying sensors to the temples, giving the wearer a futuristic look resembling Star Trek's Geordi La Forge.

One device, Muse, is meant to help with meditation. Another, Cefaly, is meant to help ease the pain of migraines. And yet another device, Emotiv, claims to measure all kinds of brain activity.

Mussa-Ivaldi says there is almost too much data given out by the brain for any device to offer useful information — even if the data is recorded in the best lab in the world.

"The issue is that you can record the activity, if you're lucky, of 100 cells or 200 cells," he said. "But the problem is that the brain has tens of billions of cells that are talking to each other. So it's like a very partial, almost insignificant picture you would get."

Mussa-Ivaldi likens this to trying to distinguish a handful of voices from a room filled with thousands of people talking at once.

"It's very difficult to understand what is really is going on, what each one is saying," he said.

'It doesn't want to listen, it wants to do'

Another kind of wearable hopes to change the brain by zapping the wearer with low-level electrical currents, which Mussa-Ivaldi says is safe to do.

One of these, the device claims to increase the wearer's physical endurance. Others, such as Thyncclaim to improve the wearer's mood and focus.

"Thync wants to be proactive. It doesn't want to listen, it wants to do," said Tom Emrich, a wearables enthusiast.

The Thync headset gives the user low-level electrical pulses to their temples. Wearers can set the device to boost their energy or to calm them down. (

Emrich runs the We Are Wearables community and blog, and regularly attends conferences with the newest gadgets.

He tried Thync earlier this year, and put it on its highest setting.

"It definitely tingles and it gets to the point where it was like more like a burning tingling, but it's not so extreme that I felt like my flesh was on fire or that I was crying," he said.

He said the device made him feel more awake and focused throughout the day. But even Emrich admits that his bias could have gotten the best of him.

"I don't know if because I'm a very optimistic individual in the wearable space — I don't know if it was just me really wanting it to work, or if it actually did work."

'Making a very big leap'

Dr. Pablo Celnik, a doctor and neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, says these kinds of wearables are founded on some science.

"But the problem is, sometimes you can take some specific information and, you know, push it a little bit too far, and claim things that may not be appropriate or may not be founded in true facts," he said.

When companies claim a device can influence the wearer's brain, "they're making a very big leap," he said.

Nerve cells in our brains communicate via electrical signals. It is possible to excite brain cells with electrical currents. But Mussa-Ivaldi says this is a "very brutal technique."

"When we do that, the problem is that you don't stimulate one neuron at a time, you stimulate probably hundreds or thousands. So the difficulty with stimulation is that you always activate a large volume of them, and you don't know exactly what you're doing." 

Medical advances

But while these brain-zapping wearables may be a rudimentary way to stimulate the brain, and difficult to measure, they are still exciting to many in the medical field. 

Mussa-Ivaldi works with wearable technology for people who have been severely paralyzed. His team is studying how sensors in a person's brain, linked with muscle sensors on their shoulders (which some paralyzed people retain control of), can once again give people the use of their limbs.

Some labs are working on "exoskeletons" for paralyzed people, allowing them to use their brains to control a machine that envelops their whole body, giving them the potential use of their limbs.

Other research in brain stimulation focuses on helping stroke patients to retain information better.

Mussa-Ivaldi says there is anecdotal scientific information that has shown that people were able to concentrate better when their heads were zapped with low-level electrical currents.

"This seems to be anecdote, but somewhat reproducible anecdote," he said.

Despite this technology being rudimentary, Celnik and Mussa-Ivaldi say there isn't much of a risk to the wearer if the electrical current's intensity is low.

But whether these devices can really do what they claim — both scientists say more clinical trials with rigorous scientific standards are needed.


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