Brain Stimulating Headphones May Work After All

From Outside
By Alex Hutchinson

Photo: Courtesy Halo Neuroscience

The hype around the technology has raced ahead of the evidence. Now the evidence may be catching up.

From a purely scientific point of view, the idea that you can alter your physical limits by trickling a bit of electric current through your brain is pretty amazing. Without changing anything about how your muscles are contracting, how hard you’re breathing, or how fast your heart is beating, you can (in theory) go farther or faster—because electric stimulation applied to precisely the right part of the brain makes everything feel easier. It’s a pretty stunning illustration of the brain’s role in setting physical limits.

In practice, the waters are a bit muddier. Should we really celebrate the advent of a new era of brain doping, in which anyone who aspires to the top of the podium has to wire up their cranium? I’ve written a lot about a technique called transcranial direct-current brain stimulation in recent years (most recently here), and I’ve been secretly relieved that, although it seems to work in the highly controlled environment of the laboratory, there’s been little or no convincing evidence that commercially available devices like the one made by Halo Neuroscience do the same.

For better or worse, that may be changing. Last month, two new studies were published that found significant improvements in athletic performance—one running, one cycling—using Halo’s brain-stimulation headphones. Both studies are small, and both leave some questions unanswered. But as brain stimulation drifts toward mainstream, it’s worth taking a look at the new findings.

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