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Innovation: How can you use neuroscience to improve sports performance?

Halo Neuroscience has created a device which can improve athletic performance by applying an electrical waveform to the brain. Halo co-founder, Daniel Chao, explains

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 04 Apr 2016 issue 117
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Halo founder Daniel Chao says the reaction to Halo has been very positive
Halo founder Daniel Chao says the reaction to Halo has been very positive

Halo Neuroscience has come up with an innovation which makes it easy to apply electrical waveforms to the brain – and the company intends to educate us on the benefits.

Halo Sport looks like a set of headphones, with spikes on the inside. Athletes wear it for 20-30 minutes before training, or for the first part of their session, and the positive effects last for an hour after it is removed.

MAKING WAVES
Halo Sport has been shown to dramatically improve sports performance by accelerating gains in strength, explosiveness and even skill, when paired with athletic training. So far it has been tested on college athletes who, after two weeks of training, saw a whopping 12 per cent improvement compared to 1.7 per cent in the control group.

The US ski team used it in 10 sessions over three weeks and those who used the device saw improvements in the propulsive force of their jump of 31 per cent, compared to 18 per cent in those who were doing the same training while receiving sham stimulation.

Now Halo Neuroscience is working with Major League Baseball teams, two NBA basketball teams and number of athletes, including a swimmer currently training for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Halo co-founder Chao explains: “Halo Sport applies an electric field to the motor cortex of the brain. This puts it in a temporary state of hyperplasticity – which is when we find it easy to learn things.”

The motor cortex is both the mission control and the battery for muscles – and while it is in a state of hyperplasticity it can be exercised to make new circuits. “Having an athlete with their motor cortex in a state of hyperplasticity, paired with athletic training is a powerful combination,” says Chao. “The technology piggybacks on the training to accelerate strength and skills acquisition.”

MEDICAL APPROACH
A medical doctor by training, with a Masters degree in neuroscience, Chao’s first innovation was with his previous company, NeuroPace, which developed a device to be surgically implanted in the brain to cure epilepsy.

“It was heartening to be part of a team which developed a novel treatment for epilepsy and to see firsthand the impact neurostimulation can have on people’s lives,” he says. “However, I also discovered what an undertaking it is to have it surgically installed, so wanted to address this with Halo and set out to develop a stimulator which doesn’t require surgery.”

Halo Neuroscience set out to develop the most advanced device of its kind. After testing the product on more than 1,000 people, they found the research area of the brain which generated the best data was the programme which targeted the motor cortex, which was a natural fit for elite athletes. “The data found the market,” says Chao. “We could never have predicted that we would be selling to professional and Olympic teams.”

POSITIVE RESPONSE
Although Chao admits he had sleepless nights worrying about the reaction to Halo Sport, he says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It was as though they had been waiting for something like this to come along,” he says. “The neurologic brain is the part of the athlete which has not been addressed before now.”

At the moment, supply is constrained: pro-teams can request a demo, but there is a queue. This does present the question of whether it gives those competitors using the technology an unfair advantage.

Chao doesn’t believe it does: “There are a lot of legal performance enhancing products and technology already being used, such as supplements and liquid nitrogen tanks which could be deemed as giving an unfair advantage,” he says.

“Having tested the product on 1,400 people, we believe we fall into the category of devices which help the athlete which are both safe and legal. I think it will raise the bar of athleticism and can help unlock human performance, to see how far we can go.”

Even if it does give competitors an advantage, priced at US$750 (£521), the device should be within reach of most, if not all, elite athletes. Consumers can make a pre-order now and Chao believes it will also be of interest to people who like to compete or race against themselves: “We believe there is an athlete in all of us.”

Going forward, the team are also looking at how to use the device for a medical application. A clinical trial on stroke rehabilitation is underway. Says Chao: “Sport is sexy, but there is a thread of altruism in the company which is very much alive. We want to use our success in the sports field to expand the possibilities on the medical side, to those who really need it.”

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