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Debate: In the field of neurostimulation, what comes first, Published Research or Patents?

The Brain-Zap­ping Olympians (The Ringer):

Gain­ing jacked-up phys­i­cal pow­ers from frontal-lobe-elec­tri­fy­ing head­gear sounds like a half-baked super­hero ori­gin sto­ry. It’s also a premise that ath­letes are buy­ing as real­i­ty. NBA play­ers and Olympians are wear­ing a brain-stim­u­la­tion device called Halo Sport in an attempt to trans­form into cham­pi­ons.

The $649 Halo Sport is sold by a San Fran­cis­co start­up called Halo Neuroscience…its pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to elec­tri­cal­ly trig­ger the brain using a method called tran­scra­nial direct-cur­rent stim­u­la­tion, or tDCS. The sci­ence is knot­ty, but Halo’s sales pitch is fair­ly sim­ple: Elec­tric puls­es emit­ted from the head­set will jolt the brain’s motor cor­tex, boost­ing ath­let­ic per­for­mance. With­out any addi­tion­al phys­i­cal effort, and just by adding fan­cy head­gear to their train­ing reg­i­men (they can also be worn while at rest), an ath­lete can bio­hack their way to vic­to­ry.

Halo claims that this brain zap­ping will put your brain into a spe­cial state of “hyper­plas­tic­i­ty.” The the­o­ry, accord­ing to the company’s web­site, is that the tran­scra­nial direct-cur­rent stim­u­la­tion helps “build opti­mized neu­ronal cir­cu­ity for ath­let­ic movement—similar to how prop­er nutri­tion makes train­ing more pro­duc­tive for the body to build mus­cle.” In oth­er words, it’s like a “pre­work­out for the brain,” using elec­tric­i­ty instead of cre­a­tine dust.

It’s a bold claim—one that some neu­ro­sci­en­tists believe is overblown…

UCLA clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Robert M. Bilder directs the Ten­nen­baum Cen­ter for the Biol­o­gy of Cre­ativ­i­ty, which research­es inno­va­tions in cog­ni­tive enhance­ments. He wasn’t impressed with Halo’s research. “I did take a look at what they call their sci­ence on their web­site, and in sup­port of their prod­uct they have three arti­cles, none of which has been pub­lished in a peer-reviewed ref­er­ee jour­nal. It’s just inter­nal doc­u­ments describ­ing the exper­i­ments that they’ve done,” he told me.

I asked Chao about the lack of peer-reviewed evi­dence sup­port­ing Halo’s claims. He didn’t seem sur­prised by the ques­tion. “Aca­d­e­mics are real­ly inter­est­ed in us pub­lish­ing some­thing. As a for-prof­it com­pa­ny, that’s not our man­date,” he said. Chao said that Halo does intend to pub­lish addi­tion­al stud­ies to aid sci­en­tif­ic research, but that it isn’t his pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty. “As the CEO of the com­pa­ny and also the chair­man of the board, I have a fidu­cia­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty to build a busi­ness here. Patents come before pub­li­ca­tions.” (Note: bold­ed by edi­tor)

Some­thing that’s mild­ly com­fort­ing about the new field of brain stim­u­la­tion is that its known side effects are gen­er­al­ly far less scary than your aver­age pre­scrip­tion drug warn­ing. Even a 2014 study urg­ing researchers to be high­ly cau­tious when intro­duc­ing brain stim­u­la­tion to chil­dren not­ed that its mild side effects are sim­ply “scalp ten­der­ness, headache or dizzi­ness,” and that the more seri­ous risk of seizure is present but very low. Then again, that same study also empha­sized that we don’t have much research on the long-term effects of tDCS.”

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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