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CES 2015

In Search of Serenity: I Strapped a Mood-Changing Device to My Skull

Image: Plaster phrenological models of heads, showing different parts of the brain, are seen at an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London

Plaster phrenological models of heads, showing different parts of the brain, are seen at an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London on March 27, 2012. CHRIS HELGREN / Reutersfile

LAS VEGAS -- I'm sitting in a luxury suite at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas, gazing at the Strip through a giant window. It's already an unreal scene -- and then my hosts strap a brain-zapping gadget to my forehead.

The device is called Thync, and it's supposed to make me more calm, creative and focused by sending electricity directly to my brain.

The Thync team had invited me for a demo during the annual Consumer Electronics Show, and their email pitch sounded weird. It felt vaguely scary. And I had to try it.

Before I donned the device, Thync CEO and co-founder Isy Goldwasser talked me through how they got here. He founded the company in 2011 with Dr. Jamie Tyler, a neurobiology and bioimaging expert who teaches at the biology school at Arizona State University.

Tyler had spent years exploring various ways to stimulate the brain, including the use of ultrasound, direct current and other electrical methods to alter brain patterns. Tyler published his work in several peer-reviewed scientific journals, and Goldwasser wondered: Could they develop a mood-altering device for consumers? Something to make them feel energized without relying on coffee, calm without sipping a dirty martini?

Fast-forward three years, and Thync says the answer is yes. I'm about to find out for myself.

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A heads-on demo

Here at the Wynn, Thync's executive director Sumon Pal attaches pieces -- Thync won't allow us to describe the product's looks or take a photo before it's released sometime in 2015 for an undisclosed price -- to the right side of my forehead and the base of my skull. Pal tries to tamp down my ample head of hair with a sporty neon headband, and I'm officially hooked up to Thync.

Pal hands me an iPhone with a companion Thync app I can use to control the intensity. "Do you want a calm vibe or an energy vibe?" he asks. After a nightmarish travel situation to get to Vegas, and ahead of my busiest week of the year covering the Consumer Electronics Show, I decide I need calm.

Pal nods. "Most people are comfortable at 60 percent [intensity]," he says, but he advises me to "play around" with the levels. And then, it begins.

Almost immediately, the right side of my skull feels prickly -- but not in a painful or otherwise bad way. Sort of like an electrified bug is crawling around in my hair, giving me a strange massage that's also pretty pleasurable. I sit for a few minutes, easing into the experience, and the prickly feeling fades.

About halfway through the 15-minute session I experiment with cranking up the intensity. Slightly higher levels bring the prickles back, but as I near 80 percent it's decidedly uncomfortable. I ramp back down to 62 percent and sit still in my chair.

I focus on a point on the floor and try to empty my mind. At points through the rest of the session, my vision feels a little "swimmy" around the edges in a way that reminds me of the feeling after that second Manhattan -- light and cheery. During other moments, I feel fleetingly weightless.

The sensations are relaxing, but when the 15-minute session ends I'm a bit jarred to realize I felt physical effects. Pal gives me a few moments to collect my thoughts and then asks how I felt -- "what you're saying is what a lot of other people report, too," he says -- before setting me up with a five-minute "boost mode" session.

During this five-minute burst, Pal tells me Thync is designed so wearers will feel the effects more quickly and more strongly with continued use. He asks me twice if I feel euphoric, but I don't at all.

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How it works

Too quickly, the demonstration is over. As Pal removes the pads I'm wondering how, exactly, this all works.

Thync built a small team of scientists and techies to develop the product, using Tyler's research and hundreds of other scientific papers. They selected the transcranial direct current stimulation method (tCDS) to deliver the jolts, and developed algorithms to target the front of the brain, cranial nerves and neuromuscular fibers.

The company is careful not to release too many details about these "neural pathways." But it has tested the device on more than 3,000 people, including 100 students and staff through a Thync-funded study at the City College of New York. The company says these trials show two-thirds of wearers feel a change in their mood beyond the placebo effect.

"You have to be a little crazy to do what we do," Goldwasser told me. "We're at the frontier of merging our biology and technology."

Figuring out that fusion could be lucrative. Thync announced in October that it had raised $13 million from investors. Last January the company Foc.us got gamers buzzing over a $249 headset designed to "make your synapses fire faster" using tCDS technology similar to Thync. DIYers debate the technology on sites like Reddit and try making their own devices (not recommended).

The implications of brain-zapping

The tech is intriguing, but the idea of zapping one's brain is inherently a little scary. Thync says its own tests and years of tCDS research show it's safe. But some pundits call for caution. Nick Davis, a tCDS expert and professor at Swansea University, warned in a 2013 paper that "'non-invasive' brain stimulation is not non-invasive." He proposed no longer using the term, citing fears that users will think the effects are mild when they may not be.

A bioethics team at Oxford University said in a paper published last April that the brain-stimulation field, including tCDS and other methods, "is a confused situation" without clear regulatory standards to protect customers.

Thync is confident in the research behind tCDS, Goldwasser says, and the company is in talks with the Federal Drug Administration.

"We believe we can access pathways that open up the ability we have within ourselves to be creative, to relax, to focus," Goldwasser tells me as I leave the suite at the Wynn. "We already have it in us. It's about finding the right way to unlock it when we need it."

I head into the bright Vegas sun to start a busy week, and I realize I do feel peaceful. but I'm already wondering: Was it Thync? Or is my brain simply pleased that I sat silently for 15 minutes in a lovely neutral-toned suite that's half the size of my apartment?

Perhaps the placebo effect or the power of suggestion lulled me into this feeling, which has seemed to dull the road noise and center my thoughts as I walk down the Strip. Or maybe it's the delirium of three hours' sleep and jet lag? Whatever it is, I decide to go with it.

Thync promises to help its wearers "conquer life." It's a bold statement, and I'm in no position to confirm it after spending only 20 minutes with the device strapped to my skull. But for this moment, I feel I can at least conquer my business trip.