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Is Brain Stimulation the Key to Athletic Performance?

I wore a fancy set of headphones during every workout for two weeks to see if it could help me improve my cycling. And it worked (I think) through a concept called neuropriming.

By
Brock Armstrong
11-minute read
Episode #472
Photo of a brain being electrified
The Quick And Dirty
  • The technology behind the Halo Sport device has been around for more than 20 years and the idea of using electricity on the brain has been around since the Roman Empire. 
  • Many scientific studies back up the idea that using tDCS can allow your neurons to fire together and wire together more quickly and easy. 
  • In my own experiment, I improved my cycling power by 14 watts in two weeks, but I also can't prove it was because of the device. 
  • If you have an already robust training program and solid exercise form, tDCS and Halo Sport may be something worth investing in. 
  • In the end, you really only get out as much as you put in.

Halo Sport is a brain stimulator that claims to helps you develop muscle memory faster. On their website, they say: 

  • You can gain skill, strength, and endurance 45% faster. 
  • You can also break through plateaus and set PRs
  • Using their product will also increase neuroplasticity and accelerate learning in the motor cortex

And all of this is backed by 4,000+ peer-reviewed studies, trusted by NFL, NBA, MLB, and Olympic athletes. The company has more than 20 patents issued to them. 

Are you intrigued? I was. So, to dig into this device and the science behind it, I invited a Ph.D. biomedical engineer and neuroscientist to the Get-Fit Guy podcast. 

The guest—Dr. Brett Wingeier

Brett: I'm Brett Wingeier. I'm Chief Technical Officer and co-founder of Halo Neuroscience. I started my career in medical devices. I got my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, electric fields of the brain. I was an athlete in college, which kind of guided part of what we do here at Halo. And then, after spending about 13 years building implantable neurostimulators for epilepsy, my co-founder and I realized that there was a chance to use this amazing type of neurotechnology in a wearable product. We started Halo in the fall of 2013, and we started the company to make Halo Sport, which is a headset that stimulates your brain to help you get better faster when you train.

Yes, you read that right. Brett said that they make a headset which stimulates your brain to help you get better, faster. 

The headset he is talking about looks very much like a normal set of headphones. Big ear muffs cover your ears with a band that goes over the top of your head. And the band, it turns out, is the important part. It's covered in foamy pointed nubs that make contact with your scalp to deliver an electrical current to your cranium. This is not something you'll find on your grandma's headphones. 

Parts of the brain

Let's get back to what Brett meant when he said that the Halo headset stimulates the brain. What part of the brain is actually getting stimulated? Is there a specific part of the brain we use more in sports? 

Brett: What we're stimulating is the primary motor cortex. And fortunately, the part of your brain that controls your body is right under the band of a pair of headphones.

That's convenient!

Brett: Exactly. So, motor neurons go directly from there down to your spinal cord. And, when you learn anything from training, there's a lot of parts of your brain involved—cerebellum, supplementary motor areas—but really that primary motor cortex is one of the key places where all that learning happens.

What is tDCS?

Now is probably a good time to mention a thing called transcranial direct current stimulation or tDCS. tDCS is a form of neuromodulation that uses direct current delivered via electrodes, which are generally attached somewhere on the head. 

tDCS was originally developed as a medical therapy for folks with brain injuries or psychiatric conditions. But, as Brett will get into later, there's evidence that using tDCS on a "healthy individual" could be useful for various types of cognitive enhancement.

If you take a little bit of electrical current and you put it on your scalp, enough of that makes its way through your scalp and through your skull that it makes your neurons more likely to fire together.

Brett: So, the underlying technology is something called transcranial direct current stimulation. And, it's been around for about 20 years now. What we've done at Halo is we've put it into a product that everybody can wear and use. But what's happening under the hood is if you take a little bit of electrical current and you put it on your scalp, enough of that makes its way through your scalp and through your skull that it makes your neurons more likely to fire together. And that's the whole mechanism of learning. What neuroscientists say is 'neurons that fire together wire together.'

You may remember me using that phrase in past articles about getting a bigger chest or rock climbing. Think of it this way: if you lift something heavy, it is not just your bicep (for example) that is being recruited by your brain, it is also all the stabilizer muscles that support that primary muscle. This means that part of getting better at a movement is not just making the muscle stronger but also developing the coordination of all the muscles learning to fire together (and wire together).

Brett: Exactly. So if you speed that up a little bit, then you accelerate the benefits from any kind of movement training.

Is this safe? Is it painful?

At this point, you may be worrying a bit about the idea of an electrical current running through your scalp, both for safety reasons and for pure comfort. 

I can say from my own experience that if there is barely any feeling at all—it mostly feels like my hair is getting pulled slightly. And honestly, that could be the case. The headset does have to be on your head quite tightly for the foam nubs to maintain contact while you warm-up for your workout. 

Brett: Most people feel it as a little bit of tingling. Some people say it's a sensation of warmth. Some people, if they turn it up all the way, it's mildly uncomfortable and they just turn it down a little bit. To come back to the safety thing, because it's important—at this point, there's a long history of using this technology. Like I said, it's been around for about 20 years.

Brett: A lot of the original data was from research labs all over the country and all over the world exploring the technology. And now, we've got a lot of Halo users out there in the wild. We continue to collect that data. 

Photo of Brock on his trainer wearing HaloBrett: One of the key things here is we're not making neurons fire that wouldn't be firing otherwise. What the technology's really doing is it's just accelerating neuroplasticity by helping those neurons be more likely to fire together and the amount of neuroplasticity that gets induced, it's probably no more than you would have on one of your best days out there in the gym, in the boat, whatever. But the power here is bringing that to every training session.

I found this point interesting. I was using the Halo Sport 2 on the bicycle the morning that I talked with Brett. I had been fighting a cold for a while and still wasn't feeling my best. I was kind of flailing around on my bike trainer, not necessarily concentrating that hard. All of a sudden it occurred to me that if I'm using the Halo device and I am, in essence, practicing cycling poorly, am I building connections to become a worse cyclist?

If you use it sitting on the couch, you're just going to get better at sitting on the couch.

Brett: Yeah, that's one thing to be aware of. Like pretty much any training aid, if you're using it with bad technique, then you could better ingrain that bad technique. If you use it sitting on the couch, you're just going to get better at sitting on the couch. So, really one of the keys here is you've got to pair it with good training, mindful of technique, measuring your outcomes, making sure you kind of close the loop between measuring your outcomes, feeding back to your technique, and keeping your brain switched on to try to optimize everything.

My experiment

Photo of Brock's increased FTPNow as you all know, I am not a scientist, so what I have been doing with my Halo Sport is by no means a legit scientific study. But this is what I did. Using the Zwift app for my bike and smart trainer, I tested my Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which is generally acknowledged as the highest average power you can sustain for an hour, measured in watts.

Then I used the Halo Sport 2 (for the prescribed 20-minute session) consistently before each workout for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, I retested my FTP, and it had increased by 10 watts, and then another 4 watts more a few days later, for a total of 14 watts. 

Despite this improvement, I still find myself frustrated. How do I know if it was the Halo helping me, or if my success was simply because I was taking my training more seriously? Maybe I just dug in because I had a new toy to play with (the Halo headset).

How do I know if it was the Halo helping me, or if my success was simply because I was taking my training more seriously?

Brett: Yeah. As any individual athlete trying to evaluate a technology, you're basically doing a study with N=1 and there's a ton of variables involved. And that's why it's so important that we go back to the scientific studies and we look at what are the data when you do this in a group of people, in a randomized, double-blind (and et cetera) fashion. There's not just the studies, but there's independent data out there that just got published last year from a couple of groups, not even associated with Halo. They bought Halo Sport and did their own study, and they looked at power output in cycling and time to exhaustion in a running kind of drill. And, in both of those cases, they showed that the group that got the real stimulation did better than the group that got the fake stimulation.

Yes, "fake stimulation." Unlike some modalities that are lacking quality scientific studies—like ice baths, compression gear, or vibration platforms which you can't really fake—whether the tDCS is real or fake, it doesn't really feel any different from wearing a tight set of headphones, and this makes it possible to have a placebo group. Which makes the scientific evidence even more compelling. 

The science of tDCS

Speaking of science and placebos, there is a wonderful history of tDCS on the Cambridge University Press website. They track the first evidence of transcranial stimulation to the Roman Empire when Scribonius Largus (the physician to the Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar) described how placing a live torpedo fish (aka the electric eel) over the scalp could relieve a headache in a patient (Scribonius Largus, 1529).

That article follows the science up to 2008 when it was concluded that "tDCS is a promising tool for basic neuroscientists, clinical neurologists, and psychiatrists in their quest to causally probe cortical representations of sensorimotor and cognitive functions, to facilitate the treatment of various neuropsychiatric disorders." (Schlaug & Renga, 2008)

When I asked Brett to weigh in on the science (remember, he's a Ph.D. biomedical engineer and neuroscientist), this is what he had to say.

Brett: Well, so the gold standard for any technology like this is randomized, double-blinded, sham-controlled studies. A lot of the original early work was done not in the gym but in the lab with things like tests where you tried to learn how to make piano chords, or activate a certain configuration of muscles in your hands and fingers. There's a couple of great papers there around 2013, we actually reproduced some of that work in our own lab. And then, more recently, there's good data coming more out of the sports world.

Brett: One of our earlier studies was one that we did with the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Team. They're really awesome to work with because these guys, they love to measure everything. They're just super scientific about what they did. So, they had some of their top ski jumpers; they broke into two groups, half of them trained with Halo getting the real stimulation, half of them got placebo fake stimulation. And what they did was they practiced on this instrumented force plate on rollers to simulate the conditions that they have when they get down to the end of the ski jump. And, it's training. They train for three weeks. Everybody got better, but the group that got the real stimulation got about 31 percent better. The group that got the fake stimulation got 14 percent better.

The group that got the real stimulation got about 31 percent better. The group that got the fake stimulation got 14 percent better.

That is impressive! But how can that even work? 

Brett: As a cyclist, endurance athlete yourself, so much of power output and time to failure and all the rest is related to your technique and it's related to how well you can keep that technique together in the face of increasing discomfort and fatigue. And, that's the real power of this technology for endurance athletes, is speaking not just kind of from the science but from my own experience in cycling and rowing, the better you can bake-in your technique—and that's what you're doing with this technology—then the better you can keep it together in the face of all that fatigue and discomfort. And that's what gives you the real win when you're out there in the race.

Brett: When scientists started to become aware of this, some of the earliest studies that were done and still get reproduced are: if you do this for about 10 to 20 minutes, then you can activate the motor cortex. And you can measure this directly right on the spot by using what's called transcranial magnetic stimulation motor evoked potentials. You can put this electromagnet on your head and put EMG electrodes on the hand or the forearm of the other side, and you can watch this activation happen. And when you do that, that activation starts to come on during the session. That activation is reflective of increased neuroplasticity that starts to come on partway into the session, and it builds.

Brett: And then at the point where you've kind of reached a plateau and you're probably not going to get much more if you keep doing it, and where that increase is going to last for 45 to 60 minutes afterward—that's about with a 20-minute session—that led to most of the science being done with 20-minute sessions. There are some scientists out there using 30-minute sessions. That's why Halo Sport gives you a 20-minute session.

Is Halo legal?

This article and podcast episode is being released at the beginning of what us sports fanatics call an Olympic year. If all of this is true, isn't this comparable to doping? It kind of feels that way to me, so I asked Brett if he's aware of any bans being put on this kind of a device for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Brett: It's a question that's been discussed a good few times by now by the neuroethicists and the sports ethicists who think about this kind of thing. And, at this point, we're not aware of any bans and we're also aware of some of the national governing bodies of various sports, so they're aware of the technology and they've, at least, tacitly accepted it. If you step back and you look at the criteria that make something a legitimate training tool versus a banned performance aid, really what it comes down to is, is it safe? There's good data from a number of sources showing this is safe. And then the question that the ethicists ask is, is it consistent with the spirit of the sport?

The key here is you really only get out as much as you put in.

Brett: And, the key here is you really only get out as much as you put in. You still have to be mindful of your training. You have to be thoughtful. You have to work hard. That thing we talked about earlier, if you use it with bad technique, then that's probably going to be counterproductive. So, it's a training aid like many other technologies we'd use; it's just a new technology and it's something that interacts with the brain. So, there's the obligation to think hard about what it's doing, but I think most of the communities come down on the side, it's a legitimate training aid.

Get-Fit Guy verdict

So, there you have it. Halo and indeed all of tDCS is a promising technology but not one that is going to do all the work for you. Remember what Brett said: "... you really only get out as much as you put in." The way I understand it, nothing will replace hard work and dedication. But if you're already training hard and looking for a bump in your already on-point exercise regimen, there's evidence that wearing these crazy headphones can help.

And honestly, yes, I do find them tight and a little uncomfortable on my pin-head. And yes, being a bit of an audiophile, I find the sound quality to be boomier and bassier than I like. And yes, I take them off as soon as my 20-minute neuropriming session is over because I get sweaty enough without exercising with ear muffs on. But those are my only complaints. And despite those complaints, I wore them this morning and plan to wear them again. 

Intrigued by Halo Sport and tDCS?

Brett: You can find more information about Halo and Halo Sport at our website, www.haloneuro.com. Obviously, you can buy a headset, but we've also got a science page on there and a page with some case studies of athletes. Really just a ton of content explaining what this technology is, how it works, and some of the stories from athletes and musicians who have used it. Again, I'm Brett Wingeier. My Twitter handle is Wingeier. I certainly welcome getting in touch with anybody who wants to learn more about the technology.

To get an exclusive listener discount, go to gethalosport.com/getfitguy or use the code GETFITGUY at checkout for $75 off. Neither I nor Quick and Dirty tips receive any financial incentive from you using that link and code; it is simply a gift from Halo to you adventurous, fit folks. 

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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