Growing up in the 1970's, one of my favorite TV shows was The Incredible Hulk. I was fascinated by the opening monologue, which detailed how Dr. Banner attempted to tap into the hidden strengths of humans by using gamma radiation. Banner's focus was on the use of science to unleash human potential, and part of the attraction was how far-fetched the concept seemed almost 40 years ago. Science fiction, right?
I recently heard about a new wearable called Thync, which was featured at CES 2015. Thync utilizes electrical neurostimulation using the brain's natural language to set the user's mood via a preprogrammed set of neurosignals called a "vibe." Currently Thync focuses on two vibes: "calm" and "energy." "Calm" promotes relaxation and euphoria whereas "energy" boosts attention and focus. These vibes are delivered to the wearer via the cranial nerves, which route the applied signals into the brain.
While Dr. Banner's experiment went awry and turned him into the Hulk when he got angry, Thync seeks a far different route. Their mission is to impact brain health in a positive fashion; to reduce stress, improve relaxation, increase energy and focus, help with socialization and provide additional motivation via an energy-shift to the mental state.
Since Thync operates out of Boston, just a few miles from where I reside, I thought it would be a great opportunity if I could interview the staff and chat about the product. I got in touch with them and set up an appointment to meet with Jamie Tyler, the chief scientific officer and co-founder, and Sumon Pal, the executive director.
It takes a bit of time to get into the city, and though our appointment was for 2 p.m. I was aware of how painful a return rush hour commute might be. Parking in Boston has been rough due to the winter we've had - and it can also be exorbitant. I elected to park in my old neighborhood of Boston University then take the subway into the city. Parking in the BU area can be a bit nerve-racking as well, due to narrow streets, icy snowbanks and aggressive meter maids. It's not too easy to get back to the highway from there, either, so it's an understatement to say I had a bit of stress over the situation with my car. This may sound like I'm rambling, but trust me: these details are important to keep in mind as I discuss my demo I with Thync.
I'm a startup kind of guy, so I felt at home immediately upon entering Thync offices, which were open and inviting with a purple décor. Tyler met me promptly at 2 pm and we got into the background and motivation behind the company.
"We started the company about three years ago. The core of our DNA is a science company. I have a Ph.D in Neuroscience and wanted to develop technology to tap into the consumer brain," Tyler said. "But we didn't know how to get there. We began the company as a scientific experiment."
Tyler is an associate professor at Arizona State University's School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering. "At Arizona State University I worked on approaches to brain stimulation from a perspective of technology applied to daily life," he said. "Ultrasound was the core platform, but that's not really wearable. There's been a huge spike in interest towards brain stimulation. Muse makes a wearable based on EEG which can read brainwaves. It does a good job at sensing brain activity but we want to do something to it."
There were some problems. They couldn't replicate the effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and wanted to steer clear of the use of sponge electrodes since that's "old science. This combined with the highly variable outcomes of tDCS led us down a different path," he said.
As is often the case with problems, these led to new avenues for Thync.
"We looked at fMRI data (functional magnetic resonance imaging measures brain activity by blood oxygenation levels) which shows which regions of the brain are activated or at resting state." This was the foundation upon which Thync built its wearable device and associated vibe apps. However, there was another hurdle they had to successfully surmount, he said.
"Safety is important. There's no point developing it if it isn't safe. In the case of ultrasound stimulation, it's too difficult to convince people it's safe at present," Tyler said.
And so Thync enlisted participants for a series of studies. In one study conducted by an independent lab at the City College of New York in collaboration with Dr. Marom Bikson, 100 people took part in 1,800 sessions, conducted for 20 minutes, five days a week for six weeks. They measured responses to their vibes, as well as tolerability and compared them to alternatives such as "sham" stimulation (no stimulation at all; just a placebo) and conventional transcranial direct brain stimulation, also known as tDCS, which is a different way of delivering signals.
Thync's website states, "Thync technology employs energy levels within the normal range of brain activity and we have been in discussions with the FDA to ensure compliance. Over 1,000 peer-reviewed published studies across more than 20,000 sessions further support the safety of our approach. We use a basic approach that has been around for more than 40 years unlike tDCS for which the jury is still out according to many investigators." Furthermore, Thync scientists have found no maladaptive long-term effects of the device, either after in-house and outside studies. Their internal studies have included approximately a few thousand test subjects.
"Calm vibes were better tolerated and produced fewer side effects than tDCS," Tyler said. "In fact, you can google 'DIY' and 'tDCS' for more information. We tweaked the calm vibe a bit to get it right and in another study we subjected participants to stress artificiality - we would show them a lightning picture then deliver a mild electric shock."
"We measured heart rate and heart rate variability that reflect sympathetic nervous system activity. We also looked at stress levels as measured by alpha-amylase and cortisol. We found, for example, that alpha-amylase levels were reduced when participants were using calm vibe and subjected to stressors. We checked galvanic skin responses and found they were also suppressed which means the calm vibes dampened the body's response to stress," Tyler said.
In other words, monitoring of participants showed the calm vibe produced a positive impact and less susceptibility to stress. How about mental function?
"Cognitive tests didn't show calm vibes were impacting performance," Tyler said. "We do not directly modulate cortical function or cognition as tDCS is proposed to do, but we do modulate psychophysiological arousal through bottom-up pathways. After the study we asked participants who were subjected to either the sham or the calm vibe to choose which made them more relaxed, and they chose the calm vibe in 97% of the cases."
So how powerful are the calm and energy vibes?
Tyler showed me a chart rating the effectiveness of each vibe. The calm vibe was rated to be stronger than a dose of oxycodone, a dose of benedryl or a blood alcohol content of .08. Conversely, the energy vibe was rated stronger than coffee or even Red Bull.
"In another study conducted in real world environments outside of lab settings participants rated calm at 4.52 out of 7 in terms of effectiveness," Tyler said. "They rated energy at 4.27 out of 7. Overall, 74% gave them a score of 4 or higher. We anticipated the opposite, actually because there is so much more noise in your daily life. This beat our numbers inside our own lab experiments."
"Although the peak effects are strong, the vibes effects don't last as long as alternatives (such as chemicals, caffeine or alcohol)," Jamie said. "And they're not cumulative, meaning you can't apply a vibe to yourself multiple times to produce an overdose."
Applying Thync to real-world situations was critical to determining how it would work for daily interactions - and common stressors.
"We tested participants over the stress of the holidays (family, travel, shopping, etc.) - 21 users and 119 vibes, to be exact. 90% used the calm vibe for stress and 71% used the energy vibe for motivation. They awarded calm a 5.1 out of 7 rating and energy received 4.7 out of 7 - this was higher than normal daily use," he said. "In fact, some retail workers used it on Black Friday and they didn't think they could get through the day without it. It also helps with public speaking, first dates, final exams, job interviews, travel; all kinds of different aspects."
Thync reported in a written statement, "Boston residents were given the Thync device so they could use the 'calm vibe' before a date. Out of 9 total participants, 8 said they had a great experience with the device prior to their date, with one saying they had a good experience. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most nervous someone could be, the average pre-date nervousness for the group was 6.9. After the calm vibe, the average pre-date nervousness for the group was 3.7. All participants said the device helped them relax to have a more enjoyable date, and on average, their pre-date nerves were reduced by more than 30 percent."
Can the device help with substance abuse or depression?
"We draw the line between consumer and therapeutic use," Thync said. "We're focused on daily use - energy boosts, stress reduction, aiding in rest and recovery, for instance. We want to stay within the realm of the regular user facing regular situations. Substance abuse and therapies are regions outside of our realm and those are best left to clinical experts in those fields."
Sumon Pal has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and he has more than 16 years of research experience in the field of neurobiology. Tyler and Pal met when they were postdoctoral fellows together at Harvard a decade ago. By his own accounts, Pal has used the Thync wearable for 1,000 hours or more.
I'm a writer, so I generally have either a cup of coffee or a beer in my hand (depending on the time of day). I think this made me a good candidate to try out the calm vibe since I'm very tuned into energy level and relaxation changes. However, I couldn't help but wonder if the vibe might produce wacky results like causing me to laugh uncontrollably or feel dizzy. As it turned out, my speculation was completely unfounded.
I conducted the 15-minute calm demo with Sumon, who attached a small sticky sensor to the side of my forehead. The sensor hooks into hydrogel pads, which are a sort of flexible circuit.
"This replaces those saline-soaked sponges of the past which they used to conduct electric signals," Sumon explained.
The sensor communicated via a wireless connection to an iPhone running the app. The interface is quite simple:
Pal tapped "Calm" which brought us to a screen where we could set duration of the vibe:
He increased the time to 15:00 using the plus key then started the vibe.
"You can use the plus and minus keys to set the intensity," Sumon instructed. "It goes from 0 to 100, and I recommend you set it between 60 and 70, then raise and lower it a bit as you proceed. The first time you use the vibe it takes some adjustment to get to the proper level."
I set the vibe level to 60, and felt a slight pressure on my forehead as the vibe commenced. It wasn't painful but I did note an almost immediate change as the calming electrical signals began to enter my brain. This wasn't a placebo and it wasn't suggestion: it was real.
"Think about a stressful situation," Sumon advised. "Then focus on it a bit later to see how you react to it."
Naturally, I thought about the hike back to my car and the exodus from Boston before rush hour commenced. Already the apprehension that previously seemed to be looming was a mere thought, nothing more. Just a few moments after starting the demo I felt a steady flow of relaxation coursing through my body. It was a bit like tubing down a lazy river at a water park; pleasant and entertaining, yet not too intense. I continued to take notes on my reactions as Sumon worked on his computer. It was like a comfortable visit with a colleague I'd known for a while.
"You may feel some euphoria," Sumon stated. I agreed; the experience was like the buzz of a couple of beers, minus the "belly glow" that goes with it.
I raised the intensity level to 62, then 64 and finally 68. I noticed when I increased the threshold I felt a slight twist of pressure in my temple as the sensor responded, but it wasn't uncomfortable or distracting. However, 68 represented a euphoric flow a bit higher than I seemed to need, so I dialed back down to 62.
I reflected on my upcoming drive home and felt nothing other than confidence. The car would be fine where I had parked it and the drive would be okay too. Even if things got sticky, I had the radio to listen to and no particular demands on my schedule for the evening. There were far worse things than sitting in Boston traffic, I reflected absently.
As I wrote down my impressions I waited to see if lengthy poetic phrases would start pouring from my pen to the paper. It wasn't like that; this wasn't a college dorm room but a scientific office, after all. I realized I had been expecting a groovy intoxicant - and there was some element of that in it - but the calm vibe seemed to be more of a smoothing agent, taking out the rough edges of life, filling in the gaps like spackle. I thought about some of the high-level tasks I perform at the office in my capacity as an IT guy (complex storage area network operations for instance) and I didn't feel any mental stumbling blocks or fog, as can be the case with a beer or two.
Pal said, "People want energy, they want to unwind and take the edge off stressful situations. We're trying to deliver a whole new way of doing that. We want people to integrate it into their lives as they see fit and use it in various stages - workplace socialization, for instance. As you can see, there's no hangover component or adaptation required on the part of the user."
"What sort of pricing do you envision for the device?" I asked casually, thinking about my available cash flow, which the calm vibe was helpfully assuring me could sustain the purchase quite feasibly.
"We're still working on the pricing structure," Pal explained. "There's a hardware and a software component, plus the consumable element - those flexible circuits are for single-use only, but we're working to optimize them so they can be used multiple times."
"Is the app going to be available for iOS and Android?" I inquired. As an Android guy, I like to see a balance in the smartphone realm.
"The app is just for iOS right now, but we'll follow it up with an Android app in a few months," Sumon said.
"Are you guys opening up the app for outside development?" I asked.
"A potential SDK is a part of an ongoing larger conversation of how we can provide customized Vibes to deliver the best experience to users. For example we could define a parameter space for an SDK where developers can put together blocks," he replied.
"Is Thync meant to replace traditional outlets for energy boosts and stress reduction such as exercise, yoga, caffeine or, alcohol?" I asked.
"No, it's meant as a supplement or an enhancement for the user. We're not out to replace anything but rather provide additional options," Pal said.
The ride home
My trip home wasn't as noteworthy as Albert Hofmann's infamous bicycle ride, but it was memorable. The acute effects of the calm vibe lasted about 45 minutes, and I found the overall sense of relaxation stayed with me a couple of hours.
Leaving Thync's office, I walked out of the office building and waited for the subway to take me back to my car. A note about outbound trains from Boston to the western outskirts: depending on which line you want to take, you have to wait for a B, C, D or E train. Mine was a B train and several C, D and E trains passed. I felt no irritation or impatience; when one finally showed up I calmly got in and rode the two miles or so to my destination.
As I ventured to my car, parked behind my old apartment building, I found a narrow snow tunnel connecting the street to the sidewalk with pedestrians queued up to pass in either direction. One woman pushed past another in the middle of the tunnel, and the latter turned and yelled a string of insults asking "Why couldn't you wait for me to get through??!"
"Boy," I thought mildly, "Sounds like she could use the calm vibe."
Sitting in traffic on Route 128 during the ride home, I found myself whistling along to Creedence Clearwater Revival and idly wondering what Modern Family would be about that week.
The Thync wearable isn't magic and doesn't involve Harry Potter waving a wand and chanting "Calmoverus!" It employs a very particular process for impacting the user's brain. In short, it utilizes the pathways of cranial and spinal nerves to manipulate the brain via transdermal electrical neurosignaling (TEN). It shortcuts the approaches taken through pharmaceuticals, meditation and exercise to lower stress without the side effects or time involved. Stress is suppressed by inhibiting the brain activities that produce a response to this stimuli, dampening or lowering its effect. It targets the fear-related ("fight or flight") areas of the brain to moderate their activity and reduce their jitter.
Since co-founder Isy Goldwasser wasn't present in the Boston office, and I had a few more questions I wanted to share with him. Here's our conversation:
SM: "How were you inspired to help start the company?"
IG: "For me it began as a passion to figure out how to bring neuroscience to everyday people in an impactful way. How do we tap into ourselves directly? There were many different topologies to consider, yet some of them were not possible. Thync is the vessel through which our journey of neuroscience for consumers is realized."
SM: "How easy was it to secure funding?"
IG: "It's not a trivial thing; our initial strategy for fundraising was key. It was a targeted approach that began with a strong partnership with our lead investor, Khosla Ventures. It's been a process that evolved carefully within the company as we sought out individuals and firms who resonated with our mission and our approach to developing our first product. We have gained more and more support over time and now as we get closer to market, the number of potential investors is much greater."
SM: "How many people were involved with the application and sensor development?"
IG: "Initially it was completely outsourced with engineering partners and consultants, then as we developed our Vibes, we hired an internal team of 8-9 people dedicated to our product while expanding our external relationships. Today we work with top industrial design, product development and contract manufacturing firms - it takes a combination of many different skills. Fortunately for us, we can leverage the advances in consumer electronics that have matured over the past decade."
SM: "How long did it take to get a working prototype?"
IG: "It took 3 months to create something at a basic level, then we continually iterated to make it better, usually a 3 month cycle. As our platform developed the process got faster."
SM: "What other vibes do you have in mind?"
IG: "First I want to say that energy/motivation and calm/relaxation are more broadly useful than initially anticipated. They are like chocolate and vanilla ice cream flavors; these ripple through many of the things we care about such as rest and recovery, managing stress, improving focus, motivation, and socialization. We're not out to make people smarter or change them - we're into neurobiology and products that connect you to your own body and mind; what you already have. Healthy people have many abilities already. So, we plan to add a better structure to our existing modes and add new areas over time."
SM: "Where do you see the company in five or ten years?"
IG: "We want to make a big impact on the world -our growth will track our impact on the world. We'll have a greater reach, more technology, and better products. In 5 years we want to be known as the company who began this category and impacted millions of people to improve their lives. We'll have given them more access to themselves and they will be better for it. This is a practical beginning to a major frontier: how technology is going to merge with biology.
In 10 years the products we come up with will be fundamentally different from others. We'll do the work and see what's possible. It's a path that leads to science-fiction decades later. Our children and our grandchildren will embed technology inside their bodies in ways we can't imagine today. But that future begins with a journey that will start in 2015."
Other user testimonials
I received the following independent feedback from some other Thync testers, who provided permission to be quoted:
"I used the Energy Vibe in a variety of different ways. It helped me wake up in the morning and gave me an extra boost of energy between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. Additionally, I worked retail both Black Friday and Sunday and used the vibe prior to my shifts on both of these occasions; I generally require a lot of caffeine to make it through these 6 hour shifts and did not require as much after using the Energy Vibe." -Leslie Cummings, 28.
"It feels like yoga (used to go regularly). It feels the same as far as the sense of self you get, deep thoughts, concentrating and relaxing both mind and whole body and feeling refreshed after you're done the next day. Calm helped with more than just the immediate calm." -Kewanee McGhee, 36-year-old childcare provider and mother of four children.
"In my public speaking class I am generally anxious and extremely nervous before giving a speech. I used the calm vibe before this particular presentation and I wasn't stressed or nervous. I was confident." -Kelsey Mortimore, 20-year-old nutrition student at UMass Amherst.
"I enjoyed using the energy vibe before studying, it helped me stay focused or to start focusing on what I had to get done. The calm vibes I used after a day of studying in the evening and that helped to stop my mind from going so fast all of the time during the final period." -Luke Cichocki, 22-year-old computer science student at BU.
Thync is expected to be released near the end of 2015. Cost is yet to be determined, but they are accepting requests for early access to their product. If you're interested in being an alpha tester in the Boston and San Francisco area you can apply on their site. You can also participate in their research if you're in the Boston area.
Thync is part of an exciting new movement involving the expansion of our understanding of the brain and how it processes, and to me this is a perfect blend of the fields of science and consciousness. Overall, I'm a committed fan of the product, the company and their culture and look forward to trying the "energy" vibe as well as seeing what's next on their roadmap.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.