What are they and what do they do?
We coined the phrase “NeuroWearables”, for digital therapeutics that can be worn on the head or placed on the body. These wearable devices use different types of stimulation to enhance brain and body function, mental health and overall wellness in daily life. Traditionally only available in research centers over the past several decades, in the past few years several researchers and companies have created user-friendly wearable versions of the stimulation technology that are now available to the public.
A search in PubMed, Google Scholar and other research portals will reveal that thousands of research studies have been conducted since the 1950’s, evaluating the utility of high powered non-invasive brain stimulation and brain training technologies for all sorts of conditions such as epilepsy, problems with attention, cognitive decline, difficulties with stress, sleep and mood, among other barriers to function such as chronic pain, learning disabilities, concussion and brain injury, stroke recovery to name only a few. Several centers using these technologies are available in the U.S.A. (for an example see: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org).
Interestingly, less powerful, user-friendly versions of these devices have been used by athletes (for e.g., to recover from injury or intense workouts/games), the U.S.A. Military (e.g., to enhance attention in staff monitoring drones for several hours in a shift) and Veterans Affairs (to manage symptoms resulting from PTSD) and more recently to enhance the attention and learning of young school-aged children in China.
How do they work?
Different types devices use different forms of brain stimulation methods, from Pulsed Electromagnetic Stimulation, Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, Sensory-based stimulation, Brain entrainment, Cranio-electrical stimulation (CES), Red-light therapy and more familiar to some, Neurofeedback which can be used to train the brain to relax, meditate, focus and so on. Using specific protocols based on years of research and included in the design of the wearables, they can stimulate changes in the brain, body and in behaviour/function.
NeuroWearables can be used for a variety of purposes such as enhancing relaxation, to reduce headaches/migraines, body pain, improve meditation practice, sleep, creativity, attention and several other functions such as enhancing sociability, improving cognitive abilities such as memory and executive function, energy levels and mood states (e.g., anxiety, anger, depression). Many operate from an App that can be downloaded to a smartphone, or tablet and some collect data so users can evaluate their own performance over time. Some are game based (brain training devices), some require users to be at rest, while others can be used when studying, getting work completed at work or at home, driving, playing music, learning a new language, relaxing or unwinding, etc.
How useful are they?
NeuroWearables can be inserted into daily life when you need a boost - for example, when you feel sluggish, or less attentive, during the day. These technologies are also great for reducing stress and enhancing relaxation at the end of a long day. We have found that students benefit from using some of the technologies for improving their ability to focus on assignments or other homework. We have also had medical personnel use them when completing reports, and first responders to improve sleep and other issues. Some of our clients have found particular devices very useful to improve memory, sleep and in reducing significant and/or chronic pain.
Another advantage of the devices is that they can be used by more than one person in a family to address different experiences, just not at the same time! While these devices are relatively expensive depending on the device (e.g., generally $380-5000+ Canadian for one), when one device can be used by more than one family member, this makes the devices value-added. Further, depending on the device, if used consistently for a period (generally 3 weeks or more), they can be used less frequently with the same positive benefits. If you notice a shift or subtle decline in function, you can use the device again for a period to remind the brain of its new functionality.
People respond to the devices individually so it’s useful to try different technologies to see which ones work best for you. Since we have learned a great deal about NeuroWearable devices over the past few years, we suggest that new users access the clinical support we offer so they can get the best use and functionality from the devices they try.
Clinical Pros and Cons of the Devices
More research needs to be conducted on the “wearable” versions of these stimulation technologies to determine how reliable, effective and useful they are for consumers. However, it is the case that some of the companies who have created these devices have already completed research and published results in peer-reviewed journals (e.g., neorhythm, vielight, neuronic) and others are actively involved in supporting collaborative multi-clinic, university and hospital-based research studies across North America and Europe (e.g., Mendi, Vielight, Muse, Neuronic etc.).
It is important to know when to use the devices. For example, research has shown that photo biomodulation can be very effective when users are in the early stages of recovery from a stroke. In other cases, in cases of brain injury, stroke, or other neurological conditions, it is important to ensure that the user is medically stable before use. It is highly recommended that users always follow the advice of their treating physician.
Our own clinical use and initial evaluations of the devices over the last 3-4 years with close to 200 participants has demonstrated that many users experiencing a variety of challenges have clearly benefited from using the devices, particularly if they use them consistently and under the guidance of a clinician. Many users have in fact chosen to buy the devices from the suppliers, many of whom now have online stores.
We have found that some devices are better than others for certain conditions. For example, we have found that we would not recommend some devices for individuals experiencing particular symptoms (e.g. nightmares resulting from PTSD or complex trauma). Some devices are better for use with children while others are not. Some are better for kinds of challenges which is why the guidance of a clinician can be very beneficial until a user has realized the full benefit(s) of the devices.
Cost is still an issue for some. Many of the devices (even those developed in Canada) are selling the devices in US dollars which means an immediate mark-up of approximately 30% in cost for Canadians who wish to try the devices. While some companies offer support, very few allow direct access to a trained clinician who will follow a user’s progress and use of the device over time.
Cost of technologies cost from $350.00 Canadian and upwards.
We provide a membership that costs $190.00 a month (six dollars a day; the cost of a Starbucks coffee), that includes one counseling session a month and usage of any of our devices onsite, as well as clinical supervision with the devices.
It has been our experience that some users require support to consistently insert the device into daily life to increase functionality. For example, some users may not take full advantage of the multiple protocols that are available for daily and night-time use to enhance overall wellness.
Some users do not want to take the device to work or school while others love using the devices before exams, when studying, charting and when in some form of discomfort wherever they may be.
Some devices require the user to be at rest which can get in the way when in the midst of life. Sometimes however, being at rest for a short period of time in your day can be a good thing!
They cannot be immersed in water due to their electronics.
Safety - most devices are very safe and simple to use. They are generally easy to sanitize for use by others at home or at work.
Durability- most devices are tough and durable, made from high grade plastics and metals.
Wearability - generally easy to wear, hardy and lightweight. Protocol duration, which is designed to enhance/mitigate particular barriers to function, can vary from 3 minutes to an hour or more, depending on the device and the purpose for choosing the particular protocol.
Versatility - depending on the device, it can be used in a number of ways to quickly enhance function (e.g., attention/focus, energy, creativity, problem solving, relaxing, pain) throughout the day. They can often be used by more than one user (in a family, at a job site) but not at the same time.
Functionality - most operate from apps that can be downloaded to a smartphone. Functionality can vary depending on the device but generally they are quite easy to insert into daily life, are effective and simple to use. Depending on the device the user can be either resting or engaged in an activity while wearing the device.
Multiple users - Wearables can be used by different members of the family. When you purchase or rent a wearable device, you can share it between family members. It can also be used in the workplace by different users. Some devices keep different programmed schedules within their database for different users.
Support - Data can also be collected by a supervising clinician for research or clinical/treatment purposes. Daily or weekly scores can be compared over time to see how much the user is progressing. Our clinicians will provide troubleshooting and protocol-enhancement as the client learns to use the technology in their everyday lives.
Data collection - Data that can be tracked by user include time a user is on the app, and time the user uses the wearable, attention and focus (Mendi and Neorhythm), how well the user is progressing using the device. The Neorhythm, Mendi, and Apollo Neuro collect information the user’s performance when using the device. Daily or weekly scores can be compared over time to see how much the user is progressing.
Use in Therapy and Research -Data can also be collected by a supervising clinician when the technologyis being used as part of a treatment program (for such things as anxiety, focus/attention, sleep, pain etc.) and for research purposes. For example, a company might use devices for improving the stress levels of their staff when at work or for example to see if reduced stress levels impact productivity, reduces sick days and so on.
Note: Always check first before cleaning the devices. NeuroThrive staff will instruct you on how to properly clean the device between users. All NeuroWearables come in their own storage box or bag, as well as a cord to recharge the wearable. For maximum protection of the wearable, it is advised to keep it in its case or box when not in use.
Avoid immersing in water and use in very hot environments - Avoid immersing most NeuroWearables in water. In addition, any device using PEMF technology should not be used in a heated environment over 42 degrees Celsius and will likely be deactivated. For example, the Neo rhythm will warn the user before shutting down when it is too hot for user safety.
Other Interesting Tidbits:
Even though some devices are designed to wear on the user’s head, some devices such as the Neorhythm and Neuronic helmet, can be placed on different parts of the body such as the stomach, arm, or leg, foot, hands etc., to relieve pain, inflammation or stress.
The Mendi, in particular, is popular with teenagers and older children, as it provides videogame-like stimulus and interaction while enhancing different aspects of brain function.
All children under the age of 18 years of age must be supervised when using NeuroWearables.
While using the devices, typically the user does not objectively feel any particular sensations (other than subtle vibrations or a mild sensation of warmth) when using the device.
Rented NeuroWearables, once returned are checked for functionality, cleaned and sterilized for the next user. NeuroWearables are also checked for function and damage when they arrive at NeuroThrive Networks to ensure proper functionality prior to use by our customers.
We have found that some devices are better for enhancing some functions (e.g., attention, energy, sleep) while other devices may be indicated for other types of desired enhancements (e.g., cognitive function such as word finding, memory, problem solving or attention, creativity etc.).
For more information about these devices, you can look up Dr. Cody Rall - a psychiatrist who has a YouTube channel called “Tech for Psych”. He has critiqued and compared many of the devices currently available to the public.
Take home message
Based on our use of NeuroWearables over the past few years, we have found that the devices can help people function better in daily life. While they do not replace the need for medical or psychological support, we have found they can support people to find solutions to everyday life hassles or barriers - situations at home, work or school that might be impacting their ability to live their best life. Some of the comments from some of our staff, family members, friends and others (with permission):
The Vielight really helped me with my sleep and problems with memory. I can go into a room now and remember what I was there to get! The Neorhythm took the pain in my feet away and helped me with the pain in my hip. I can move more freely now and I don’t have pain!
I used the 40 hz Vielight for six twenty minute sessions over six days and I noticed my sleep improved alot!
I rely on MindAlive to help me sleep and to heal from my concussion.
The Apollo Neuro has really helped me with my anxiety and I can get to sleep at night too. It’s so easy to use and I love that I can can put it on my ankle under my pants. I really appreciate the automatic customized settings. Its made such a big difference at work and at home. Love, love, love the Apollo Neuro!
I have been using the neorhythm for headaches and neck pain - super helpful.
We LOVE the Neorhythm! My husband uses it to relax after a long day at work and my younger son uses it to help him focus on schoolwork. My other son finds it super helpful to use the deep relaxation protocol before a big game with his teammates. I like it for meditation.
I can’t get over how much it improved the pain and swelling in my knee (Neorhythm)! Thanks for letting me try it. Where can I get it?
The Alpha-Stim M helped increase the movement and flexibility of my hand - my pinky was curled shut for a long time but the Alpha-Stim changed that!
The neorhythm helped our child to sleep better at night!
The Neuronic really helps me with word finding, attention and memory and even sleep. I also used it to recover from surgery and it reduced my recovery time significantly (2 weeks instead of 6!). I also love the energy protocol. I used the Neorhythm for pain and swelling instead of pain killers and it was very effective!
The neorhythm pad has made a huge difference in my back, neck and hip pain. I am buying two - one for my home and one for on the road when I have to drive my kids to tournaments. The neopad has been a gamechanger for me!
I have found the neorhythm helpful when I am completing assignments and when preparing for my exams at university.
Love this device for charting at the end of a long shift at the hospital! [Neorhythm]I can focus and get it done so much quicker!
I like the Muse for relaxing, meditation and for improving my HRV.