Updated | On the table in front of me in a New York hotel lobby lies a gadget from Halo Neuroscience that looks like a cross between high-end headphones and a crown of thorns. Daniel Chao, Halo’s phlegmatic CEO, coolly tells me the spikes are meant to touch my scalp and send electrical pulses into my brain in a way that can make me, even in my 50s, a better athlete. He asks me if I want to try it.
Sounds weird, I think, but members of the U.S. ski team, a few MLB teams and several top college players invited to this year’s NFL Scouting Combine have been secretly testing the Halo device and believe that it works. Some of the claims are eye-popping. One set of data from the ski jumping team showed that athletes who trained using Halo improved their “jump force” by 31 percent while a control group doing the same training without Halo improved just 18 percent. At the top tier of any sport, that kind of edge is the difference between a champion and an also-ran. Such an edge can also raise questions about the fairness of brain-based performance enhancement—which some have already labeled “neuro-doping.”
Starting February 10, anyone can buy Halo’s product for $549. Halo is looking to build an Apple-style consumer brand around technology that until now has been the stuff of research labs, Frankenstein stories and do-it-yourself come-ons that barely rise above the breathless pitches for diet pills and penis enlargers.
Halo isn’t a crazy, out-of-the-blue breakthrough. It relies on transcranial electrical stimulation (tES), a technique that can trace its roots as far back as the 19th century and has become a hot field of neuroscience research in the 21st century. The electric pulses work only when combined with rigorous training. The Halo team makes it clear it isn’t offering a quick or easy fix. They say the pulses get the brain’s neurons to fire more readily, helping the user learn physical techniques better and faster. Athletic training becomes more effective. The science so far says it’s safe, though with notes of caution.
Serious people with serious reputations are behind the Silicon Valley startup. Chao and one of his co-founders previously built a company that developed a brain implant that counters epileptic seizures. One investor in Halo is high-profile venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and another is Peter Hébert, of Lux Capital, who has backed dozens of deep-science bio-tech and energy companies. Listed as advisers are Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Susan Paley, former CEO of Apple-owned Beats by Dre. The Beats connection is obvious in the headset design.
As intriguing as the sports applications are, they only hint at what Halo might become. Chao says he will seek Food and Drug Administration approval to market Halo’s device as a way to help stroke victims recover their physical capabilities. And then, he says, a different version of Halo, which would send pulses into another part of the brain, will be able to improve memory and mental processing, giving users an advantage at work or school. At one point, he tells me some of Halo’s tests show it can “roll back cognitive aging by 25 years.” (He later seems to regret saying that, explaining that he prefers to stay focused on the sports applications.)
Since most new technologies get cheaper, smaller and better over time, I can imagine that Halo or some successor will cost $100 in five years and be as common as a cellphone, making millions of users stronger and smarter. I can see parents desperate to get such products for their kids. I see Wall Street traders and San Francisco coders addicted to neuro-stimulating gizmos, certain the jolts give them a cutthroat advantage. I picture me in my twilight years using Halo so I can not only remember where I put my keys but also think with the agility of those damn millennials.
So, Chao says again, am I ready to try it? I put on the headset, squishing the foam-covered spikes against my scalp. Chao picks up a smartphone-like device that wirelessly controls the pulses, opens the app and starts to ramp up the power.
Changing the Brain From the Outside
It’s pretty obvious that Chao is freakishly smart. He got his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, then a neuroscience master's, followed by an M.D. at Stanford. But he says he never wanted to work as a doctor—just learn medicine so he could solve medical problems. He spent a couple of years at McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm, to learn about business—because, doesn’t everybody?—then set off to start companies. His first was NeuroPace.
NeuroPace took Chao and biomedical engineer Brett Wingeier into neuro-stimulation. Epilepsy is essentially a short-circuiting of the electricity in the brain. NeuroPace made a tiny computer that can sense those short circuits and instantly counter them, stopping seizures before they start. The bad news is the device has to be surgically implanted, and each costs around $30,000. NeuroPace got approval from the FDA in 2013 and is in the heads of thousands of patients, but Chao wanted to help more people by making something that could act on the brain from the outside. “Our NeuroPace device was an elegant way to manipulate neurons, but barbaric to install,” he says. “Brett and I thought we could do better.”
Chao had been watching the research in brain science, and so had one of his McKinsey friends, Amol Sarva, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford, where he studied cognitive science. In the early 2000s, German neurophysiologist Michael Nitsche published key research that measured how tES stimulated neurons. “Since then, there have probably been over 2,000 papers on this topic—an explosion of scientific research,” he tells me. Many of the papers are like, “Tr anscranial Direct Current Stimulation in Sports Training,” published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience by London researchers Michael Banissy and Neil Muggleton, who concluded: “It seems likely that, if suitably employed, [tES] could be of benefit toward improving performance in many sports, either by aiding motor or perceptual learning and/or the effectiveness of training in these domains.”
“By 2012, we’d seen enough,” Chao says. While still at NeuroPace, Chao, Wingeier and Sarva started developing tES technology on the side. In 2014, once NeuroPace got FDA approval, the trio founded Halo. They weren’t certain what they were going to do with tES, but they gravitated toward ways to test it that would give them solid data. That led them to sports training. Results like speed, power and precision are measurable, and the science already said tES would work on the motor cortex for athletes. “Data revealed a sports enhancement product,” adviser Hundt says. “The data led to the business model, instead of the other way around.”
Hundt has been in tech circles for three decades and spent 11 years at McKinsey, where he knew Chao and Sarva. He introduced them to Andreessen, who immediately got the implications of Halo. “Everybody in the Valley wants some kind of extra IQ,” Hundt says with a chuckle. Halo also asked for funding from Hébert at Lux, which likes investing in hard but important technology. “It will be a consumer product, but it won’t happen overnight,” Hébert says. “It will take time for people to get used to the idea. But it will be for anyone who cares about improving their cognitive processing, and the trends we’re seeing are that people are looking for any advantage they can get.”
At first, Halo built crude versions of its product, testing it on hundreds of volunteers, collecting data and refining the engineering. When Chao talked about Halo on a panel at a sports conference in New York City, officials from the U.S. ski jumping team approached him about trying it, and that led to more data about Halo’s effectiveness, such as the improvement in jump force. As word spread about Halo, Michael Johnson Performance —the Dallas-area facility started by gold medal–runner Michael Johnson—joined the testing. And there, 21 football players headed for the NFL combine are training with Halo—among them Cody Whitehair, a guard from Kansas State, Nick Martin, a center from Notre Dame, Kenneth Dixon, a running back from Louisiana Tech and Bralon Addison, a wide receiver from the University of Oregon. Half a dozen MLB teams have also been working with Halo, although none want to go on the record as using it. “Baseball is a natural fit,” Chao says. “It’s so quantitative.”
One of the things the Halo team had to learn was how to best apply its product. It now instructs athletes to wear it for the first 20 or 30 minutes of a 90-minute training session. The electric impulses create a state of hyperplasticity in the brain, so neurons connect more readily than normal. Whatever technique you’re learning gets learned faster and more completely, they say. Wearing it beyond 30 minutes a day doesn’t seem to help much more, the results show—and no one is sure whether too much exposure can be harmful.
The final piece for Halo was packaging the science in a consumer-friendly product. The headphone form makes Halo seem less like a freaky science project—other than the foam spikes under the headband. The headset runs on a rechargeable battery, and is controlled wirelessly by an app on a handheld device. Eventually, Halo will offer the app for smartphones.
And so Halo is introducing a legitimate, well-funded, well-designed neuro-stimulation product to consumer markets. There’s no telling whether it will be the ultimate winner in the space, but it seems clear that Halo or some company will popularize tES—at least for athletes and for those seeking to improve memory and cognition.
And then, what will happen when the masses get their hands on it?
Is Neuro-Doping Fair?
Before Chao turns on the headset I’ve tentatively put on, I ask if he uses it. He’s 44 and a serious cycler. In Marin County, Chao tells me, there’s a climb called Hawk Hill on which local bikers measure their worth. He claims that after training with Halo, he set a personal record by 15 seconds, beating times he had when he was much younger.
In the hotel lobby, I’m not about to kick a soccer ball (I’m a devoted player) with Halo on my head, so I won’t get any measurable benefit today. Still, I want to see what it feels like, so Chao ramps up the device, and I sense something like light pricks on my scalp. It’s barely enough to be annoying. Nothing else seems to happen to my brain, though I guess I’ll never know.
And therein lies the rub. For all the studies that have been done, there are still a lot of things we don’t know about electrical neuro-stimulation, says Paula Tallal, a neuroscientist and entrepreneur based at the Salk Institute in San Diego. The technology seems to be safe and effective in short-term, controlled situations—like in a sports training facility. But selling to consumers is a different game. If untrained individuals are not sure it’s working, they might overdo their own brain zapping. No one is sure what dosage level is best or safe, or whether the effects attributed to tES are long-lasting or transient. When I ask Tallal if she’d use it, she says, “Putting current into my brain is something I’m not willing to play around with.”
Assuming tES gadgets proliferate for sports and for memory enhancement, what kind of advantage will it give, and to whom? Professional sports organizations are going to have to decide if neuro-stimulation is unfair neuro-doping. But good luck enforcing a ban. “There is no known way to detect reliably whether or not a person has recently experienced brain stimulation,” wrote Nick Davis of Bangor University in a paper for Sports Medicine.
As Halo or others come out with versions that boost memory and ability to perform mental tasks, parents will be tempted—or maybe compelled—to get these things for their high schoolers to help with the drive to get into Harvard. One study in 2013 by Roi Cohen Kadosh at the University of Oxford showed that neuro-stimulation vastly improved students’ math scores. “Some people will say that those who are bad at mathematics will stay bad. That might not be the case,” Kadosh said. What family can resist that? Yet as Tallal and others point out, the research doesn’t yet show the full impact of tES on a young developing brain.
Competition at work might go to a whole different realm if tES proliferates. At first, only elite early adopters will likely buy a $549 unproven product, but if more and more people use it and enhance their performance, the rest of us might have to jolt our brains to keep up. Maybe advanced workplaces like Google will add tES lounges to their nap rooms and gourmet cafeterias. And an aging population will welcome anything that keeps our brains young and agile—and competitive.
Of course, all that is still to come. Or not. For now, Chao is trying hard to steer away from sensationalism. “None of the science promises a cure for Alzheimer’s or that it will make everyone a Picasso,” he says. “No one is saying that. We’re not saying that.”
Yeah, but after my small dose under the less-than-ideal environment of a hotel lobby, I’m intrigued enough to want to find out if Halo can improve my soccer, my work and my life. I mean, if I could knock 25 years off my neurons, at least I’d be able to remember everybody’s names at a dinner party.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect price for the product. It identified Wingeier as a co-founder of NeuroPace; he was an early employee of the company. The name of Hawk Hill has been amended.