Sport headphones are usually designed to be to be small, light, waterproof, and wireless so that they don’t get in the way while working out. Given this design standard, a pair of bulky over-ear headphones for athletes might not seem like the best investment. But that didn’t stop Halo Neuroscience from raising $13 million in funding from high profile investment firms including TPG and Lux Capital this past January.
As you may have guessed by now, these are no ordinary headphones. On top of playing music, they deliver a weak electric current to the brain, which the company claims promotes brain plasticity. This purportedly allows the user to learn motor skills more quickly. The electric current is directed at the motor cortex, which lies directly under electrified pads lining the inside of the headset and coordinates movements of the body. A 20-minute session makes neurons in this region more likely to fire, which could help athletes learn skills more efficiently, as well as increase their endurance and strength. However, scientific evidence behind this idea is mixed at best, and Halo is relying on many small, privately funded studies to support their claim, along with anecdotes from paid ‘brand ambassadors’.
But even if these headphones did improve your athletic performance, they don’t come without risk. Increasing the excitability of neurons can lead to headaches and even epilepsy in the short term, while the long-term effects remain unknown. Like steroids, these brain stimulating headphones are a potentially dangerous performance enhancer, but unlike steroids, there are no regulations against them in professional sports. As more and more technologies like this start coming on to market (like the Foc.us, ApeX systems) we need to set strict guidelines for their use.
Halo Neuroscience has conducted extensive safety training, and they claim that the worst side effects people experience are headaches and a tingling sensation during stimulation. This needs to be tempered with the knowledge that all of their safety testing has been conducted in-house and focuses on observable short-term effects. Because these brain stimulation technologies are so new, we have no idea what the long-term effects of repeated use may be. Zapping your brain with electricity is always going to come with some risk. Is that risk reason enough for us to ban the headphones entirely? Maybe.
Normally, we let individuals decide on their own the amount of risk they are willing to take in order to reach their goals. In competitive sports, however, this becomes more complicated. At the highest level of competition, any small advantage can have a huge impact. As more athletes start using this technology to get ahead, their competitors will inevitably feel pressure to do the same. This is one of the main arguments that also applies to steroid use. If one person decides they want to risk long-term health complications in order to be better at baseball, that’s on them, but as soon as enough people start doing it that you need to take steroids in order to be competitive, we have a problem.
As with steroids, the link to sports can have a negative impact on our next generation of athletes. Kids love sports and look up to their favourite players. If they see athletes using this technology and singing its praises, wouldn’t they try to get their hands on a pair? The issue here is that the health risks are even more significant when the user’s brain isn’t fully developed. Brain stimulation for anyone under 20 years of age can have serious impacts on their brain’s long-term wiring.
Halo Neuroscience has already put out warnings that the headset shouldn’t be used by anyone under 18, but this seems nearly impossible to prevent. Every day there are more blogs and forums popping up giving advice to aspiring ‘bio-hackers’ for building their own stimulating headsets, using as little as a battery, a headband and some sponges. If expensive but safe brain stimulation becomes mainstream in professional sports, it will be impossible to stop younger sports fans from experimenting on themselves with DIY tools, which would open them to huge amounts of risk.
Regulating the use of brain stimulation comes with its own unique challenges. Unlike steroids, it’s impossible to test if someone has used brain stimulation as a performance enhancer, meaning it will be nearly impossible to police, short of a complete ban.
As Halo Neuroscience prepares for their next round of funding, we should all take a step back and think about what our favorite athletes are putting themselves through for the sake of competition. As this technology becomes more common, it’s only going to become harder to regulate. Whether we decide to ban these technologies or at the very least regulate them more strictly, we need to do it fast.
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