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article imageAre brain-stimulating headphones a good idea?

By Tim Sandle     Mar 22, 2016 in Technology
Improved consoles, better smartphones and virtual reality headsets represent a new generation of a technology. How about adding brain-stimulating headphones to the list? Such devices could help alter a person’s mood, but are they safe to use?
According to QMed, two different start-up tech companies are launching brain-stimulating headphones, aimed at different market sectors. One device is aimed at helping athletes to work out while the other is designed to help lift a person’s mood.
The technology is based on transcranial direct current stimulation. Transcranial direct current stimulation is a form of neurostimulation which uses constant, low current delivered to the brain area of interest via electrodes on the scalp.
Speaking with the BBC, Dr Roy Cohen Kadosh from the University of Oxford noted: “Research has shown that by delivering electricity to the right part of the brain, we can change the threshold of neurons that transmit information in our brain, and by doing that we can improve cognitive abilities in different types of psychological functions.”
One of the two companies is Halo Neuroscience, based in San Francisco. This is aimed at making better athletes. The product, called Halo Sport seeks to improve co-ordination by sending a 2 milliamp signal directly to the motor cortex in the brain. The motor cortex is the region of the cerebral cortex involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements. The idea is that neurons will react much more quickly. Trails have taken place with the United States Ski & Snowboard Association, as well as some Major League Baseball and National Football League athletes.
The company’s head, Daniel Chao, has told Newsweek the technology could one day help stroke sufferers and the technology could even “roll back cognitive aging by 25 years.” There is no scientific support of this at present.
The second company is Nervana LLC, located near Lake Worth in Florida. This device aims to improve mood by stimulating the vagus nerve. This nerve interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart and digestive tract. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), is sometimes used to treat people with epilepsy or depression. However, this does not traditionally involve the use of sound, and sound waves are the basis of the Nervana device.
Sound waves are created though music selected by the user. The device was reviewed by The Verge, with the reporter stating he felt lightheaded after using them.
While the technology is interesting it should be noted that neither is medically approved and neither has the status of a regulated medical device. Any person considering using the devices for a medical condition should seek advice from a qualified medical practitioner. The Nerva device, for example, is clearly marketed as an "entertainment device.”
Furthermore, there are no peer-reviewed studies, yet published, that support the claims made by the manufacturers.
Some researchers are cautious about the use of the technique as a commercial device. Nick Davis from Swansea University has pleaded for "calm and caution" for these devices, especially if used by teenagers. This is due to risks to the developing brain, and there sometimes being an association with seizures and mood changes. For this reason, a number of scientists think such devices should be regulated, scientifically evaluated and controlled.
More about brain stimulation, Headphones, transcranial Direct Current Stimulation
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