Thync shares science behind its brain-zapping wearable

Thync execs Sumon Pal and William “Jamie” Tyler.
Thync execs Sumon Pal and William “Jamie” Tyler.

Boston device-maker Thync has been steadily gathering attention for its far-out claim that its next-gen gadget, a wireless wearable electrode for your brain, can tune your mood. It comes in two settings, “Calm” or “Energize,” and Thync claims their device can amp up your alertness like a shot of caffeine, or mellow you out like a good massage — all with a precisely designed pulse of current.

By and large, according to reports from the tech media and various tech and health professionals who’ve tried the device, it seems the company is delivering on its promise (I tried it myself and felt significantly blissed-out afterward). But for the first time, Thync has published a study that explains some of the magic behind their mad idea. And while it’s still pending peer review, it does provide an appetizer of experimental evidence that their device, so far trialed by an army of some 3,000 test subjects, actually works.

The move is unusual for tech companies, who are typically secretive about internal studies. But it’s in keeping with the Thync’s goal to be transparent to their future customers, the company’s co-founder William “Jamie” Tyler explained. Also, since the device is not only new to the public, but to science as well, it’s an opportunity to present the device to the academic and medical community.

So how does it work? Touch-sensitive cranial nerves on your face already carry tactile information to the brain. Thync seems to have found a way to have their precise current piggyback on that path, to adjust the volume on a deep-set part of the brain that controls the stress response.

“We’re signaling the brain through a pathway that’s already there,” said Tyler, who provides a detailed hypothesis for how their device works in the paper. “Its like the gas pedal in your car. Basically if you press down on the gas, you start going fast.”

The timing for the study is no accident either — the company plans to start selling the one-of-a-kind device this year. “That’s why we’re ready to go to market — because we’re convinced by the science,” Tyler said.

In the tests, 82 subjects experienced a 14-minute session with the Thync device on the “calm” setting, and 14 minutes with a similarly shaped “sham” device that wasn’t electrified.

Thync’s scientific team then documented physiological signs — sweat and body temperature, for example — as well as chemical ones, like looking for signs of a protein that is present in early stages of a stress response.

The calming effect was evident in the pool who had the real device, it was absent when they wore the version without the current.

“It’s not the complete story start to finish, but it’s interesting,” sad Alik Widge, who studies brain stimulation at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Neurotherapeutics in the Department of Psychiatry.

Researchers have been experimenting with electricity and the brain for decades, but Widge noted that Tyler and his crew at Thync are taking a fundamentally different approach by choosing to have stick-on electrodes rather than implanting them surgically. So, such a device could be a great resource for researchers looking into brain-stimulation therapies for conditions like depression.

If it works, that is.

Widge says he wants to see more evidence that what we’re seeing is more than a placebo effect. “I look at this the same way I see a vitamin supplement, or a food-as-medicine kind of thing — it’s certainly not going to hurt the person,” Widge said.

Widge also said he was interested in seeing an independent lab replicate the results in follow-up studies, and he’d look to also monitor the results in an MRI scanner. “I would like to see the pulse sequences recorded in an animal model,” he said.

This is exactly the kind of collaboration that Tyler hopes will take place.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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