As the sun peeks its head over the horizon, a sprinter, lean and statuesque, stands in preparation for the morning’s workout. But before beginning her routine, she puts on a pair of over-ear headphones and opens an app to kick off a round of transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (tDCS).

Put simply, she is shocking her brain to improve her training.

A new device that implements tDCS has found its way out of a San Francisco startup headed by Daniel Chao and Brett Wingeier. They call their newest gadget Halo Sport and have already sold out of pre-orders.

Halo Sport looks and functions like a pair of regular over-ear headphones, but it can be used to send small electric currents to specific parts of the brain. Chao has a master’s degree in neuroscience and a medical degree from Stanford University, while Wingeier has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. Chao does the science and Wingeier does the tech, and together, they are trying to stretch the capabilities of the modern athlete.

The science behind Halo Sport is well understood. Two electrodes (an anode and a cathode) are placed on the scalp and a small electric current is used to induce the firing of certain neurons. The more times these neurons fire, the stronger their neural pathways become. Ultimately, our brains get better at remembering how to do a particular movement.

But using tDCS to improve athletic performance was not Chao and Wingeier’s original plan. Electrical stimulation of the brain has been around for many decades, and has been used for a variety of applications, with varying rates of success. Chao and Wingeier wanted a product that would give them solid results. After a series of tests with over 1,500 volunteers, they found that the motor cortex (the area of the brain involved with voluntary movement) showed the most promise. Thus, Halo Sport targets this brain region, which starts at one ear and stretches over the head to the other ear. Its placement makes it perfect for a headphone band.

Although many are skeptical of the results of studies involving tDCS, Chao and Wingeier proudly report that their tests show increases in the speed of clicking a button and pressing a key on a keyboard. Of course, here is a big difference between clicking buttons and swimming or playing baseball. This is why Chao and Wingeier also tested Halo Sport on skiers and snowboarders. A lot of training by these winter athletes is actually done indoors. One such type of training is jumping on a force plate to practice doing tricks. The force plate measures how much force the athlete exerts. The more force produced, the higher the athlete can jump and the more intricate the trick can become. After using Halo Sport during training sessions, skiers and snowboarders showed a slightly increased ability to jump.

The key point in the above example is that the athletes were using Halo Sport along with their usual training regime. Unfortunately, you can’t just wear Halo Sport on your couch and expect to acquire new athletic abilities. This technology is meant to be used while performing some sort of action. It’s not just for Olympic athletes, either—people of all skill levels can use it.

But if it is for the general public, people should ask how safe it is. You have probably heard of electroshock or electroconvulsive therapy, and the horror stories associated with those terms. In those cases, practitioners used upwards of 800 to 900 milliamperes (mA) of electric current. Halo Sport only uses a measly 2 mA. It is no more dangerous than touching a potato battery.

So, if you are interested in trying Halo Sport, the first commercial models are expected to be available in October, with a retail price $749. The device can pair with any smartphone and is controlled completely with an app. You can adjust the amount of time you are receiving tDCS as well as its intensity, making it incredibly user-friendly.

The only question left to answer is: Is brain hacking cheating?



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