HUMM, a San Francisco-based tech company, has developed the Edge headset, a wearable electrical stimulation device that the company claims can boost learning and memory. The device consists of a headband that delivers electrical stimulation to the brain, and using it for just 15 minutes is reported to provide certain cognitive enhancements for at least one hour.
In an increasingly fast-paced and competitive world, researchers have been exploring electrical brain stimulation as a way to enhance our cognitive abilities at the flick of a switch. People think nothing of using a stimulant such as coffee to improve their concentration and energy levels, but stimulants can have side-effects such as sleep disturbance.
The goal of electrical brain stimulation is to enhance performance of cognitive tasks without the side-effects of medication or the time and effort required for meditation. The product has a wide base of potential users, from people in the workplace to students in college.
The technology is non-invasive and is based on previous clinical research. HUMM has carried out a clinical trial, and reported that users experienced no adverse effects, and demonstrated improved memory function in a battery of tests. The headset delivers a very small electrical charge, which the company describes as about 1/100th of the power already used by the brain. HUMM is inviting people to get involved in their early access program, to be one of the first to try the new headset.
In the video below, HUMM introduces their Early Access Program for the upcoming Edge headset prior to its public launch.
Medgadget asked Dr. Tim Fiori, Chief Science Officer and Co-founder of HUMM some questions about the concept.
Conn Hastings, Medgadget: Can you give us some brief background on how you got interested in this area and how the headset came about?
Tim Fiori, HUMM: While at medical school I was involved in clinical research at a neuroscience lab, exploring the possibility of helping patients with spinal cord injuries recover lost movement. We were using very simple tools to apply stimulation to the brain and spinal cord, and we could do basic things like make a person’s leg kick or fist clench. The tools were basic and bulky, but it was a powerful revelation to see and experience technology that could directly change how the brain works. It felt like we were working on the first computers, knowing how powerful and ubiquitous they would one day become. Recently, other labs have come so far as to allow paraplegic patients to step out of the wheelchair for the first time completely unaided – a really incredible breakthrough.
My colleagues and I started noticing the growing body of research demonstrating positive effects for healthy people as well – findings such as improved memory accuracy, faster reaction times and better attention. However, few of these breakthroughs were ever translated into practical and useful applications. We saw that more and more people around the world were beginning to take notice too, and having limited access to these devices they were often building them from scratch. We started HUMM to bridge this divide, between what was possible in the lab and what people were attempting in order to perform better in daily life.
Our goal has been to make neurotechnology accessible, appealing and really useful. We think there’s enormous potential for this technology to improve people’s lives, and we want to create the demand for great consumer products that is needed to drive the science forward. We started in Australia, and after two years of intense research and development, have moved to San Francisco to take on funding and work more closely with a number of academic institutions. We’ve had a lot of luck along the way, including being accepted into both the muru-D startup accelerator in Australia followed by Berkeley’s Skydeck program, not to mention having been able to assemble an extraordinary team.
Medgadget: How does the technology work? How long has this been around?
Fiori: We’ve known for a long time that the brain is fundamentally a complex electrical circuit, and that the prefrontal cortex is closely involved in regulation of memory and attention. We also know that the brain’s electrical patterns are rhythmic, forming waves that are responsible for how the brain operates. Much more recently though, we’ve discovered significantly more about the specifics of how memory and attention operate in the brain – the networks involved, their electrical signatures and how to interact with them.
Edge uses transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS), a technique for interacting with these electrical patterns non-invasively. It builds on about twenty years of medical research into similar techniques for applying electrical stimulation to the brain. tACS produces a very small current that modulates the brain’s electrical activity, altering the likelihood of neuronal firing in an oscillatory pattern and recruiting a larger population of neurons into task-relevant rhythmic firing networks. The result of this is an increase in network activity that you can measure both electrically and in standard psychological tests of memory and attention.
As with any new field, there has certainly been controversy around how this technology interacts with the brain and how effective it is. We now understand far more about the extent to which these electrical changes can be measured within the brain, how significantly they alter neuronal firing and how this improves cognitive performance between different people. With so much mystery surrounding how the brain works, it’s been important to be very rigorous in how we assess the growing body of research in this field and how we test the efficacy of our own headset.
However, we know it’s safe and we know it works in a way that can now have a meaningful impact in people’s lives. What’s most exciting though, is that there’s a lot of room for improvement in how we can measure a user’s brain activity in real time, how we can use this to understand their cognitive state, and how we can personalize the way we apply stimulation based on their individual anatomy and physiology. This is just the start of how we learn to talk to the brain in its own language – electricity – and expect to see rapid progress in the coming years.
Medgadget: So, why would people want a product like this? Where do you see it fitting into people’s lives?
Fiori: As a company aiming to make this technology part of our daily lives, this has been one of the most important considerations for us and has led us on a fascinating journey from college campuses to board rooms, from professional esports tournaments to military training programs, and from pediatrics to geriatrics. Wherever you look, people are trying to perform better and learn faster.
We’ve had to look for that crossover of what the technology can promise and where there is consumer demand. We think the process of learning something new or acquiring a new skill is the perfect fit, and it’s encouraging to see the majority of our preorders come from business professionals and students. We receive a lot of calls and emails from people looking to help their parents with Alzheimer’s disease, or their child with ADHD, and although we’re optimistic and motivated by the therapeutic potential, it’s unfortunately not something that has been investigated extensively enough for us to promise.
Eventually we believe neurotechnology will become integral to daily life, much like smartphones have become indispensable, as we discover more about how to interface with the brain. Right now, we know how to use these tools to reliably help with memory and learning, just as computers once had a limited and specific set of uses, but as the technology develops so will the ways in which it improves people’s lives.
Medgadget: What can people expect while wearing the headset? What types of cognitive improvements have you observed?
Fiori: There’s a lot of noise in this space, so one of our biggest motivations is to be clear on what this technology can and can’t do. The type of electrical signal generated, and the area of the head to which it’s applied, has a significant role in determining the effects produced.
In the way Edge applies tACS, independent studies have shown improvements in working memory, short term memory, multitasking performance and reaction times. We’ve replicated these results with Edge against placebo, and we’re now looking at how this changes the way that you can progress along the learning curve. It may not make an expert better at a well-honed skill, but we think the improvement in memory encoding can help get you there faster.
There’s a large and growing body of research indicating that this technology can assist in many other areas, including fatigue, sleep and even symptomatic treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD. This is not what Edge has been designed for, but these cognitive benefits have been observed independently and we think in due course we’ll be able to speak more confidently about them.
We receive a lot of subjective feedback and anecdotes from users, such as using Edge while learning a new language, while playing computer games competitively and even before job interviews. This really helps us understand how people feel emotionally while using Edge and has been very encouraging, but ultimately we need to be transparent and rigorous in what we tell people to expect.
Medgadget: Are there any safety issues?
Fiori: The technology we’re using in Edge has a strong track record for safety and no serious adverse effects have been observed in thousands of scientific studies. It can be used at low currents below the threshold of perception, although sometimes users will report an initial tingling sensation upon use. The current produced by Edge is orders of magnitude lower than the recommended limits for charge density and well within the industry standards for transcranial electrical stimulation. It’s a safer alternative to many of the stimulants that are now commonly being used off-label by students and professionals, having no addictive profile and none of the downsides of a performance crash or sleep disturbance.
Medgadget: Where do you see this type of technology in the future?
Fiori: In the future, we believe this type of technology will become as integral to daily life as smartphones and computers are today. It’s the start of a huge shift in technology toward closer interaction with the brain directly. We believe people will be able to customize their mental state on demand and expand our capabilities beyond what is determined by our genetics.
At the same time, there have been huge advances in the invasive version of this technology – surgically implanted brain computer interfaces that have allowed patients to accomplish such feats as moving robotic arms and controlling computers by thought. We think this will eventually unlock new ways of interacting with the world, with technology and with each other.
We’re not alone in working towards this goal – numerous companies are rapidly developing neurotechnology for both consumer and medical purposes. Elon Musk’s secretive startup, Neuralink, is building a brain computer interface with the goal of connecting minds directly to the internet. Multiple startups and pharmaceutical companies are also working on ‘electroceuticals’ – methods of treating familiar diseases with electrical stimulation. Our work at HUMM is just the first step, and it’s been a privilege to be pushing the boundaries of such an exciting field.
Product page: Edge headset…