It’s a murky Monday morning, but as I watch Boston lurch back to work from the 14th floor of the Prudential Center, I feel as if I am on vacation, getting a head massage. I’m in the East Coast offices of neurotech startup Thync, and for the last 15 minutes the company’s Pringle-sized device has been glued to my temple, emitting a low dose of electricity to my brain. “You look much more relaxed,” Thync senior scientist Jonathan Charlesworth observes, seeing my body respond. As I ramp up the intensity, the two looming deadlines I’d been fretting about all morning suddenly don’t seem like a big deal. Not a bit.
So is it really possible to change your mood by flipping on a current? And would you want to? The team behind Thync is betting big time that our nation of coffee-swilling, booze-guzzling, yoga-loving consumers will. The wearable device — which uses electrical stimulation to alter brain patterns and tune the part of the nervous system’s central switchboard that controls stress, energy, and relaxation — aspires to enter the market later this year. But for now, the prototype is still too top-secret to show.
Company cofounder William “Jamie” Tyler and executive director Sumon Pal first connected as postdoctoral researchers studying brain activity at Harvard University. Later, Tyler, by then on the faculty at Arizona State University, found a way to tickle deep-set sections of the brain without disturbing the tissue in between.
Their initial impulse was to create a device that would give gamers a more lifelike experience or be used therapeutically. But then entrepreneur Isy Goldwasser, an MIT-trained engineer and now the company’s chief executive, suggested a neuromodulation gadget aimed at all consumers could have broader appeal. In 2011 the company was born, and by last October they’d raised $13 million from venture capital investors, including heavyweights like Khosla Ventures of Menlo Park, California.
So far, the device offers two settings, or “vibes”: Energize, which feels like a shot of coffee without the crash — because no chemical pathways are involved, Pal explains. And Calm: that first Friday beer at the end of a long week — with none of the fuzziness that usually accompanies beer. The idea of permitting electrical currents into your brain may sound alarming, but Pal reassures that the signal’s intensity is lower than the buzzing already going on in there.
Last month, Thync gave private previews to select tech press and “influencers” at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, snagging a “Cool Tech” award from Digital Trends , a news site that reviews tech gadgets for regular people. Arshya Vahabzadeh, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital who tried the device there, compared Energize to “a shot of really strong coffee without the wait in line.” Impressed, Vahabzadeh said some users might wonder about potential addictiveness and long-term tolerance — that you’d need to use higher intensities or longer sessions the more you used the device — although Thync execs say they have seen neither of those behaviors from the volunteers who have already given it a whirl.
One of them, Boston University PhD candidate Anshul Jain, used the Thync device for two weeks in October to help juggle teaching assignments while writing his thesis, skipping his morning coffee to flip on Energize instead. At bedtime, it was a shot of Calm. At the end of the trial run, Jain reluctantly returned the device. But a sign that bodes well for Thync’s investors? He says he’d pay anything — well, up to $200 — to buy it back.
PICK YOUR PLEASURE
An e-jolt to the brain or a good ol’ cuppa joe?
Thync’s Energize “vibe” has been called “the tech world’s answer to a strong coffee.” With that in mind, let’s compare: Thync vs. Dunkin’ Donuts.
> How does it work?
The device: Delivers electrical stimulation to the brain through electrodes
The drink: Delivers caffeine to the central nervous system via a foam cup
> What does it feel like?
The device: Slight prickling sensation
The drink: Cold (or hot), sweet (or not)
> Who’s tried It?
The device: More than 3,000 guinea pigs, er, test subjects
The drink: Who hasn’t?