Can a Bit of Electricity Improve Your Brain?

Neuromodulation expands beyond health care.

Posted Oct 08, 2019

PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay
Source: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

Neuromodulation is the use of electrical, magnetic, or chemical stimulation to modulate nervous tissue function. Research studies with promising results from novel treatments using neuromodulations are emerging.

On October 4, 2019, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, led by Professor Helen S. Mayberg, M.D. at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Dr. Andrea Crowell at Emory University, showed that deep brain stimulation for treatment-resistant depression for a majority of the participants had a “robust and sustained antidepressant response” in an over eight-year period, and there were not any suicides.

Earlier this year, in April, Boston University scientists Robert M. G. Reinhart and John A. Nguyen published in Nature Neuroscience a neuromodulation study that demonstrated noninvasive electrical brain stimulation temporarily improved the working memory accuracy in older adults. The study used 84 people—half between the ages of 20-29, and the other half between 60-76 years old.

The scientists hypothesize that their technique improved behavior due to neuroplastic changes in functional connectivity for up to 50 minutes afterward. Additional studies with more test subjects are needed to test the hypothesis and determine the full course potential of the effects.

These are just a few examples of the numerous research studies in neuromodulation. Neuromodulation methods include optogenetics, cochlear implants, retinal implants, deep brain and spinal cord stimulators, pharmacotherapy, and electroceuticals. Potential applications for neuromodulation may include chronic pain management, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, complications due to stroke, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, migraines, spinal cord injuries, and other conditions. Currently, there are over 590 neuromodulation clinical studies worldwide, according to the U.S. National Institute of Health’s Library of Medicine database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies conducted around the world.

Within the growing neuromodulation market, one segment, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is moving beyond health care and is making inroads into the consumer segment. Transcranial direct current stimulation is a form of noninvasive brain stimulation using a constant weak electrical current. Typically the voltage is less than two milliamps.

One of the earliest records of transcranial direct current stimulation dates to the ancient Roman Empire. The physician to Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar, Scribonius Largus, put a live torpedo fish, an electric ray capable of delivering up to 220 volts, directly on a patient in an effort to use the animal’s electrical discharges for pain therapy.

Fast forward to present day, and transcranial direct current stimulation is being used for a variety of purposes as an emerging technology for neuroscientists, elite athletes, e-sports gamers, neurologists, musicians, and psychiatrists—sans the torpedo fish. Instead, electronic devices in various form-factors are used to deliver currents to the human brain noninvasively via the scalp. Consumer-based transcranial direct current stimulation devices operate on the principle of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change neural connections and behavior.

“Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience,” wrote the New York Times bestselling author, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, Norman Doidge, FRCPC, in his 2015 book The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.

An example of a consumer-based transcranial direct current stimulation device is the Halo Sport 2, a wireless headset introduced in January 2019 that stimulates the brain’s motor cortex through electrical currents to create a temporary state of neuroplasticity. Whether the activity is learning music, dance, or sports, the human brain learns movement via the motor cortex.

The device is made by venture-backed startup Halo Neuroscience, a company founded in 2013 by Daniel Chao, Brett Wingeier, Lee von Kraus, Ph.D., and Amol Sarva, with investments from Jazz Venture Partners, Lux Capital, TPG, Andreessen Horowitz, and others. To use the Halo Sport 2 is simple—neuroprime with the headset on for 20 minutes, then train for an hour afterward.

Halo Sport users include athletes, musicians, and the military—such as members of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants, National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors, the U.S. Navy SEALs, USA Cycling, the United States Ski Team, Berklee College of Music, Invictus, as well as many others.

World champion triathlete Timothy O’Donnell is a Halo Sport user. O’Donnell has over 50 podium finishes, including 22 wins. He won two IRONMAN titles, six Armed Forces National Championships, nine Ironman 70.3 races, an ITU Long Distance World Champion race, and many other prestigious competitive triathlon medals. As a world-class elite athlete, O’Donnell is constantly seeking innovative ways to improve his performance. He reportedly reached out to Halo Neuroscience after reading about the technology and incorporates Halo Sport neuropriming in his training to give him an edge.

A number of investments in neuroscience companies have emerged in recent years, such as Bryan Johnson’s Kernel, Elon Musk’s Neuralink, and Tej Tadi’s MindMaze. Other neurotechnology startups include Synchron, founded by Nicholas Opie and Thomas Oxley, BIOS founded by Emil Hewage and Oliver Armitage, BrainCo founded by Bicheng Han, Nextmind founded by Gwendal Kerdavid and Sid Kouider, Thync founded by Isy Goldwasser and Jamie Tyler, EMOTIV founded by Tan Le and Dr. Geoff Mackellar, Paradromics founded by Matt Angle, Bitbrain founded by Javier Minguez Zafra and Maria Lopez Valdes, Flow Neuroscience founded by Daniel Månsson and Erik Rehn, Dreem founded by Hugo Mercier and Quentin Soulet de Brugière, Neuros Medical founded by Jon J. Snyder, Neurable founded by James Hamet, Michael Thompson and Ramses Alcaide, Cognixion founded by Andeas Forsland, Q30 Innovations founded by Bruce Angus and Thomas Hoey, Neuroscouting founded by Dr. Wesley Clapp and Dr. Brian Miller, and Meltin MMI founded by Masahiro Kasuya, and Neuropace founded by David R. Fischell.

The global neuromodulation device industry is expected to increase to 13.3 billion by 2022, according to Neurotech Reports figures published in September 2018. Within this growing space, consumer-based transcranial direct current stimulation is an emerging market to watch.

Copyright © 2019 Cami Rosso All rights reserved.

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