Wearables want to mess with our brains. Okay, maybe mess isn't the right word. There are now devices that want to tap into our brains with the promise of doing a variety of things including improve athletic performance, fight pain, calm us down and even help speed up the process of learning new skills.
Many of these devices are based on neuroscience, an area of research that stretches as far back as Ancient Egypt. Thanks to recent developments it's firmly on the wearable tech agenda with a host of innovative startups now taking full advantage.
Essential reading: How mind reading wearables look into our brains
So what exactly is neuroscience, is it safe and who's using it? We try to answer all those questions and more below.
What is neuroscience?
So let's break down what we mean by neuroscience. Check in on any reputable medical or science resource and it will tell you that neuroscience or neural science is all to do with the study of the brain and the nervous system.
It's about getting a better understanding of how the nervous system operates by examining how neurons (nerve cells), essentially the building blocks of the nervous system, talk to each other and generate certain behaviours and cognitive functions. When we talk about cognitive functions we're talking about things like the way we acquire information and knowledge.
Historically, neuroscience has been closely aligned with biology but it now overlaps with disciplines that include mathematics, psychology, chemistry and linguistics. Modern neuroscience is broken down into a whole host of different branches from behavioural science, which looks at how the brain affects behaviour to neuroimaging, which diagnoses disease and assesses the health of the brain. There's a whole lot going on in the neuroscience space right now.
It's all in the head
Advances in many of the disciplines that now cross over with neuroscience have enhanced what is currently capable in terms of exploring our nervous systems. We're getting a much better understanding of how the nervous system works and uncovering more about what it's actually capable of.
So how does that apply to wearables?
What we're seeing is a growing trend in brain-training wearables that offer non-invasive methods of neuro stimulation. This means that small amounts of electricity are sent via micro electrodes to specific parts of the brain to stimulate specific nerve cells in the brain.
This type of electrical brain stimulation has been used in the past to help diagnose disorders of the brain or even provide treatment for post-traumatic stress disorders. What we are now seeing are connected wearables, of varying medical and consumer health grades, that are putting this control into regular people's hands to improve brain performance for a whole host of reasons.
Meet the neuroscience wearables
The first high profile brain stimulating wearable arrived courtesy of Thync who launched its first wearable back in 2015. Since then it's released its second generation version, the Thync Relax followed up by the Thync Relax Pro. It ditched the use of electrodes running from your temple to the back of your neck putting the tech into a small pod that sits on the neck instead. It uses neurostimulation via tiny electrodes to try to help you relax, combat stress and even help you sleep better.
The folks at Halo Neuroscience have been making waves with its Sport headphones. They are aimed squarely at serious athletes but are also being embraced by other industries including the US Navy Seals. Halo aims to improve physical attributes such as strength, speed and endurance and does this through what it calls neuropriming. This involves sending a small level of electrical current to the user's brain via two Primers (electrodes), which are fitted inside of the headphones. These then tap into the regions of the brain that relates to sports and fitness to seek these improvements.
This wearable strap that is worn on the upper part of the leg uses a kind of neurostimulation that has been around for some time, but is now available in mini wearable form. It uses miniaturised TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) technology to reduce the perception of pain, delivering tiny electrical impulses that help drown out pain signals to the brain and offer pain relief. Unlike many of the devices mentioned here, the Quell wearable is FDA approved and it can be used while you're sleeping.
Unlike Halo and Thync, the TouchPoints wearable embraces the stimulating technique to help you de-stress (in just 30 seconds apparently), improve focus and get a better night's sleep. The Basics can be worn around the wrist or clipped onto clothing and then uses its Bi-Lateral Alternating Stimulation Tactile (BLAST for short) technology. This is a new method of neuroscience technology that sends alternating vibrations and aims to reduce the amount of excess brainwaves that translate into anxiety or stress.
Tag this as a neuroscience wearable in the works, but this wearable takes the form of a forearm straps that uses neuroscience to learn and hear musical notes much more quickly. Vibes works using haptic technology and a companion smartphone app. While the app produces the audible notes, it triggers the wearable device to encourage a specific tactile stimulus on your inner arm. This repetition aims to help the brain recognise the same intervals or chords and hopefully get you out of tutorial mode in no time.
But does it work and is it safe?
So this is the big thing. If you turned around to someone and asked them to try this wearable that tinkered with your brain, they're probably going to be sceptical if it works and if it's even safe to try out. Jump onto the websites of the likes of Thync or Halo Neuroscience and you'll read about the years of research and medical studies that proves this kit is legit, though the potential benefits of brain stimulation still divides neuroscientists today.
As far as safety is concerned, only one of the devices mentioned is FDA approved, which means they have not been tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In the case of most of the companies mentioned above though, they do not require that approval because they are 100% non-invasive devices that are considered lifestyle devices as opposed to medical devices. Perhaps in future, we will see more standards in lifestyle focused wellbeing tech in general - something we'd definitely like to see.
Ultimately, it's down to you whether you want to give neurostimulating tech a try. We've given it a shot with the Halo Sport and the Thync wearables and we have survived to tell the tale but there's definitely still very early days for neuroscience and wearables coming together in perfect union.