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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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