On a recent morning, like so many others, I arrived at work sleepy after staying up too late. But this time, instead of pouring a second cup of coffee, I strapped a new wearable to my head and revived myself with so-called noninvasive brain stimulation — or tried to, anyway.
The palm-sized, triangular device hung above my right eyebrow and connected to a strip of electrodes that attached to the skin behind my ear. On a smartphone app, I twisted an "energy vibes" dial to half power and felt my forehead buzz. I was testing Thync, a new device from a startup of the same name that claims to calm or energize users in minutes with low-level electric current.
Thync co-founder and CEO Isy Goldwasser is convinced the company's headset is a viable tool for coping with everyday stress. "You'd use it for minutes and the effect is for hours," he told BuzzFeed News. "There's a carryover effect — literally your whole morning could be better."
Thync's device, which goes on sale today for $299, is the latest in a growing array of new wearables that promise to alter moods and mental states. Before Thync, there were Foc.us, Melon, and Muse, each peddling transcranial direct current stimulation devices promising to do everything from improve gamers' focus to enhance meditative states and reduce stress.
Thync's approach is a variation on older brain stimulation therapies. In vagus nerve stimulation, for example, a device is implanted under the skin and sends electrical pulses through vagus nerves, which affect major organs and regions of the brain that control mood, sleep, and other functions. The FDA approved it to treat severe depression in 2005.
In contrast, Thync's device is noninvasive and does not directly target the brain. Instead, it uses pulsed electrical current to stimulate peripheral nerves close to the skin's surface.
To foster an energizing effect, Thync sends a series of electric pulses to the cervical spine nerves behind the ear, which are supposed to activate the sympathetic nervous system (the one that modulates the fight-or-flight response) and deactivate the parasympathetic nervous system (which controls the body's resting state). To produce a calming effect, Thync delivers the same stimulation to the cranial nerves in your face.
But it's not yet clear if either of those effects can truly be achieved through the skin. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center, a group of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, told BuzzFeed News she is "super skeptical" about the mood-altering promises of transcranial direct current stimulation.
"I would never use it," Simon-Thomas said, citing additional concerns about long-term side effects. "At what point does it become something that your nervous system adapts to? We don't know the longitudinal impact."
Clinical studies about transcranial direct current stimulation devices have so far found little evidence that they work. In January, researchers published in the journal Brain Stimulation the largest meta-analysis of such devices to date, and in reviewing 59 studies, found no significant benefit to users. In a paper published in February, a team led by Thync's chief scientific officer, Jamie Tyler, claimed that an 82-person study of the Thync headgear suggests that it can significantly reduce response to stress. The study, which appeared in bioRxiv, was not peer-reviewed prior to publication.
Tyler, co-founder and chief scientific officer, said that Thync's safety has been verified in single-blind and double-blind placebo-controlled studies in more than 3,500 people. The company says subjects have not experienced significant side effects.
Thync's headset is not advertised as a medical device, so it is exempt from Food and Drug Administration regulation. The company is seeking approval by the Underwriters Laboratories, a worldwide product safety testing company.
Goldwasser and Tyler envision Thync as a tool for dealing with the stresses of everyday life — relaxing before a long flight or a public speaking engagement, or boosting mental focus while cramming for a final exam or working on a deadline.
My Thync experience was mixed. With "energy vibes" cranked up to 50%, my forehead throbbed and ached until I lowered them to 38%. After the 10-minute demo, I did feel slightly more on edge, but perhaps that's because I was weirded out from wearing a strange buzzing gadget on my head.
During the demo, a Thync executive photographed me with a thermal infrared camera. Afterward, he told me that my body temperature had dropped a few degrees, a sign that the device had indeed energized my sympathetic nervous system.
Perhaps. But I'm not sure whether Thync worked. Either way, it didn't stop me from getting that second cup of coffee.
Thync is in the process of becoming UL-approved. An earlier version of this story said it had been tested by Underwriters Labs.