To Improve Your Muscles, Start With Your Brain
When we think of getting stronger—of making ourselves more dexterous, our muscles more efficient—most of us think of our bodies. We think of long hours of grueling exercise, of years spent working our muscles and pushing them to the limit. We typically don't think of our brains.
As it turns out, this way of thinking may be rather flawed.
While muscles can obviously be improved and strengthened by extended periods of training and stretching, our brains ultimately play an important role in this process. As Daniel Chao, a neuroscientist who received his M.D. from Stanford University, notes "usually, [people] think about strength as a muscular thing, but nothing can be further from the truth. The amount of strength that you have is incredibly governed by the brain."
Enter Halo Neuroscience.
Chao is CEO of Halo Neuroscience, a company that recently unveiled the Halo, a brain stimulation system that, in short, uses pulses of energy to make you stronger. Sound strange? Stay with me, because things are going to get interesting.
How Brain Stimulation Works
In many ways, neurostimulation is as simple as it sounds. "We're delivering energy to the body," Chao notes. The technology uses these pulses of energy to help the brain’s neurons fire more easily, in effect, making individuals learn better and faster.
A really abbreviated way of defining this is: It makes your brain work better.
When I met with Chao to get a look at the Halo, he broke things down a bit more. The technique is known as transcranial electrical stimulation (TES). In relatively simple terms, Chao notes, "The technology provides an amount of neurostimulation, putting the targeted area of the brain into a state of hyperlearning."
This hyperlearning is something that neuroscientists call "hyperplasticity."
"Plasticity," Chao continues, is the process by which the brain creates new circuits, and the Halo aims to facilitate this process, allowing individuals to make new circuits more efficiently (make neurons connect more readily) through electrical stimulation.
However, it doesn't work on its own. Chao makes it clear that this isn't meant to be an "easy fix." Unfortunately, you can't just sit on the couch, stimulate your brain with electrical pulses, and expect your body to improve. "You have to do the work. I think that's an important thing to know about this technology. Nothing happens unless you do the work," Chao emphasizes.
But although it doesn't work on it's own, according to the teams data, it can help you improve faster by allowing your brain to form new and better connections through electrical stimulation.
Remarkably, you don't need any complicated tech in order to receive this stimulation. Rather, the Halo looks like a rather ordinary set of headphones that comes with two spikey sections, which you pop into place and rest against your head to deliver the stimulation (the spikes are soft, so don't worry about getting poked).
And now, anyone can buy Halo’s product for $549 (though that will likely drop as it becomes more widespread).
These spikes are known as "primers," and they are rather easy to put in the device. I was able to slip the primers into the Halo on the first go (well, I put them in backwards at first, but that was easily fixed). The Halo is also super light-weight. Holding it in my hands, it felt similar to a baseball.
And as it turns out, this small, unassuming device could help make us faster, stronger, and physically better than we were before.
Testing the Tech
Olympic athletes train their entire lives, honing their skills to near perfection. At this stage, improvements are exceptionally hard to come by. For the average individual, shaving a couple of seconds off a run is, well, kind of meaningless. But for Olympic runners, such gains are monumental, as these individuals are already (nearly) the best that they can be.
The same is true for Olympic skiers. Any improvement at all (even a single digit percentage improvement) is monumental. So that's where the Halo team went to test how much their tech actually assists individuals in improving, as there is essentially zero dynamic range.
Chao notes that they worked with a team of Olympic coaches, trainers, and seven athletes to test the Halo. He outlines the parameters measured, saying "A critical moment in their sport is takeoff. They need to be able to push off basically a zero friction surface in a way that is a quality, smooth movement but is also maximal in its force."
Measuring this, the Halo group got 30% better in their baseline, improving their "jump force" by a notable amount (remember, at these levels, any improvement is notable).
"For us, data is everything."
Chao emphasizes that, ultimately, the Halo is driven by this kind of data. The team used 1800 sessions of blinded, randomized tests to measure their device. For their studies, the researchers didn't know who was getting the actual stimulation and who was getting a kind of placebo stimulation ( which feels like the real thing, but isn't). Of course, the test subjects also weren't aware of whether or not they were getting the real stimulation.
Apparently, the data is also what ultimately led the the team to develop this device specifically for sports and physical improvements. Chao asserts that the Halo team places emphasis on hard science and data driven results in order to see how the technology (how TES) is most useful.
Instead of having some end goal that they are constantly striving towards, they follow the path that, according to their data and numerous trials, is most beneficial. "For us, data is everything. The rate at which we learn and produce data, the rate that we produce quality and reproduce results—that is what markets the products that we build."
A 30% improvement is notable, of course. But are such results just a one-off? Does the device shock you into working better, and then the results die off? Or does the Halo actually help your brain improve for the long term?
When I asked, Chao was quick to respond. "We saw this ski jumping data, and what you don't want to see is, the day after you stop using this, for those result to fall off a cliff. These results are durable....the gains that you get that are supported and complimented with neurostimulation are as durable as results that you would produce through any sort of training activity."
Halo also conducted research studies with the Michael Johnson Performance Center, located in Austin,in order to test the Halo with college athletes. The purpose of these tests were to determine if the Halo could accelerate gains in lowerbody strength and explosiveness. The results are provided below:
Where to Next?
Ultimately, TES is not new. Brain stimulation has a long, long history dating back decades. And this isn't Chao's first venture into neurostimulation either. Chao, along with one of his co-founders, previously built a company that developed a brain implant that counters epileptic seizures. It received unanimous FDA approval. Yet, he was inspired to create the Halo because of how invasive other forms of brain stimulation often are.
Case in point, to use the device that he developed to counter seizures, you have to go through a three hour surgery that involves electrodes being implanted in your brain. "This is amazing technology, curative type technology" Chao notes, "but this [three hour surgery] is what's involved...and nobody wants this."
To that end, the team at Halo Neuroscience wanted to find a better way (a less invasive way) of delivering similar results. "We're trying to bring the powers of neurostimulation into a form factor that doesn't require surgery." And they hope to bring this tech to individuals who hope to accomplish a number if different tasks (and improve in a variety of ways).
"We could raise the ceiling of what is possible in terms of recovery."
In fact, Chao notes that they already have active clinical trials ongoing in relation to stroke rehab. "If you think about a stroke, that's a form of brain injury [caused by a lack of oxygen to a part of the brain]. Two-thirds of people with stroke have some form of motor symptomatology....the idea here is, what if we could encourage the brain to be more plastic? And if you pair that with physical therapy...we could raise the ceiling of what is possible in terms of recovery and also accelerate the rate that we get to that new ceiling."
To that end, the Halo team is working with medical universities in rigorous trials to see if they can rehabilitate people and get them closer to their former selves. However, Chao notes that this is an "FDA thing." As such, there are many trials and testing periods that must be gone through, and many regulations that must be satisfied, before the device can be made widely available.
But notably, when (and if) this second version comes out, the Halo headset would be effectively the same, as one of the governing principals of the device is its adaptability for different uses. The electronics are there, the team would just need to make slight alterations to target different areas of the brain and get different results.
While such uses may be years away, and while it has yet to be determined if such brain stimulation actually can help individuals who suffered a stroke...I can envision a future where individuals who have a host of neurological issues are able to see improvements through technologies like these—and it looks like a pretty bright place.