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Can you rewire your brain as a shortcut to health?

AFTER pies, pudding and late nights, it’s time for those monk-like new year’s resolutions. Sadly, many of us give up on our ambitious healthy goals long before we hit health nirvana. But thanks to a new wave of innovative, brain-tweaking neurotech that offers a shortcut to a new you, 2018 might just be the year that all changes.

These neuroscience-inspired gadgets promise to help us ‘hack’ our brains, get fitter faster, sleep better and even shed body fat just by sitting on the sofa. Sound too good to be true? We’ve been investigating this emerging tech trend to discover how — and, more importantly for our waistlines, if — it works. Get ready to tighten that belt.

The age of neurotech

In 2017, a paraplegic man, Rodrigo Hübner Mendes, became the first person to drive a racing car with his mind, using just a wireless, wearable, brainwave-monitoring headset for control. This is neurotechnology — the ability to artificially interact with the workings of the brain — in action. In 2018, you’ll hear much more about it.

A new breed of neuro-preneurs are spending millions in a race to decode our brains and create consumer-friendly devices targeting a range of problems, including fitness performance, weight-loss and better sleep. According to Neurotech Report, this new market could be worth $12 billion by 2020 — and experts predict big changes ahead.

Practice: Halo Sport increases learning powers

‘For the first time in history, a species — the human — is about to take its own evolution in hand, to reverse-engineer itself,’ says Yannick Roy, co-founder and executive director of NeuroTechX, a non-profit organisation building a global neurotechnology community. ‘We’re still in the very early stages but the potential is beyond imagination. In the coming decade we’ll ask what it means to have a chip in our brain and to be enhanced.’

This cyborg vision might be years away but examples of what Roy calls ‘prototype’ neurotechnology are available to buy right now. However, he urges patience.

‘It’s important to differentiate between what’s possible now and the potential,’ he says. ‘The brain is very complicated and it’s still hard to create a one-size-fits-all device that works for everyone. One thing’s guaranteed — we’re not going to stop trying to understand the brain, to increase performance, productivity, creativity and mindfulness.’

While we wait for our brains to be chipped, here’s a look at the first wave of neurotech devices coming out of the labs and on to our heads.

Lose weight more easily

Six in ten adults are overweight or obese and 50 per cent of us want to lose weight, according to NHS Digital’s Health Survey for England. While the ‘healthy diet and exercise’ weight-loss theory sounds simple, many of us find it anything but. One UK-based neurotech company thinks it has a solution.

Modius (£190, modiushealth.com) is a headset that attaches to the bony bits behind your ears and uses small electrical pulses to trick your brain into thinking you’re working out.

Trick: The Modius headset kids your brain into thinking you’re exercising

This causes the hypothalamus — the part of your grey matter that controls appetite and metabolism — to release your body’s store of fat to fuel all these imaginary press-ups and burpees. End result? You lose weight. It all works by stimulating something called the vestibular nerve, which the brain associates with exercise.

But does it work? A 2002 study found that vestibular stimulation significantly reduced body fat in animals. Meanwhile, an initial study looking at the effects of repeated Modius stimulation over 16 weeks observed significant reduction in body fat in nine out of 15 subjects.

Get fitter, faster

The old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ is grounded in brain science. Whether we’re learning to play the piano or trying to be the fastest in spin class, our innate ability to adapt to physical training and learn new skills via repetition — neuroplasticity — is what drives improvement. The problem? It can take thousands of repetitions and a very long time. Until now, that is.

Sweet: The Dreem headband massages your brain to sleep

Halo Sport headphones (£550, haloneuro.com) use a complex form of neurostimulation called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) to fire up your motor cortex and increase the excitability of motor neurons. Wearing these for 20 minutes of ‘neuropriming’ before or during a workout puts your brain into a state of heightened plasticity known as ‘hyper plasticity’ or ‘hyperlearning’ for up to 60 minutes.

During this time the brain’s ability to adapt to training becomes more potent, allowing your brain to learn more quickly and achieve results faster. Put more simply, popping on a pair of Halo Sports for your workout has the potential to accelerate gains in strength, explosiveness, endurance and muscle memory.

If that sounds like cheating, note that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. As Halo Neuroscience co-founder Dr Brett Wingeier says: ‘Users [still] need to put in the work and take advantage of their hyperplastic state by practising optimal form and technique.’

Sleep like a beauty

Poor-quality sleep can undermine our best efforts to be healthy — including how well we exercise and recover. While there are plenty of sleep trackers that reveal how much shut-eye we’re getting, until now these ‘listening’ devices have left it up to us to find ways to improve our sleep. Neurotech is changing that.

‘For decades our sleep quality has decreased,’ says Hugo Mercier, founder and CEO of Rythm, whose Dreem headset aims to help us sleep better. ‘In the past 70 years we have lost around 60 nights of sleep per year due to societal and cultural shifts, and a third of the global population now sleeps badly.’

Mercier’s Dreem headband (£295, dreem.com) uses five EEG (electroencephalography) sensors to record and analyse brain and sleep activity, while other sensors track movement, heart rate and breathing. Based on what Dreem learns, it then uses bone-conduction technology to deliver sleep-enhancing sound to the inner ear via vibrations on your forehead when you need it most.

Can it help you sleep better? In a study of 500 users over six months in 2016, Mercier’s team demonstrated that Dreem not only measured brain activity as efficiently as lab-grade medical devices but also improved sleep quality — increasing the power and the amplitude of the brainwaves during deep sleep — by 40 per cent.

It’s still early days, of course. But with headsets to fool your brain into burning fat, headphones to speed up muscle memory and a headband to help you sleep, hacking yourself into health is anything but a pipe dream.

Big minds building better brains

FACEBOOK’s Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla/Space X founder Elon Musk (both pictured) have spotted neurotech’s potential too, revealing visions for the development of the human brain.

Musk’s new company, Neuralink, aims to turn cloud-based AI into an extension of the human brain.

‘We will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,’ Musk has said. ‘It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.’

At its F8 summit in April 2017, Facebook revealed it’s building a brain-computer interface that lets you type with just your mind. The team plans to use optical imaging to scan your brain a hundred times per second to translate your inner monologue into text.