Neurostimulation is the next mind-expanding idea

by Amol Sarva '98CC
originally published Dec. 18, 2013 in Wired magazine

The idea of stimulating brain performance seemed very plausible when I first heard about it, taking my PhD in cognitive science at Stanford. Your brain operates with electricity; why couldn't electric current or waves boost it a bit? Gentlemen physicists such as Volta and Galvani were fiddling with frogs' legs and cadavers back around the late 18th century. Another Italian wrote about curing melancholia with electricity in 1804. And today, everyone knows about the power of shock therapy. 

But what appeared on my radar in 2003 was different: a headset that sent weak electromagnetic waves into your head. Lawrence Osborne, in The New York Times Magazine, reported that after his brain was electrically stimulated, he suddenly produced some incredible cat drawings. Admittedly, this was no peer-reviewed journal: in fact, no lab had been able to reproduce the findings of the man behind this and similar experiments, a University of Sydney physicist named Allan Snyder.

Last year, my latest startup, Peek, was acquired and I was considering my next move. I started thinking of the most amazing technologies I'd seen. Those cat drawings had stayed in my mind. Why not produce devices to enhance the brain?

I found a key paper: neurophysiologist Michael Nitsche in Göttingen published an actual measurement showing stimulation was affecting neurons. Meanwhile, some hardcore neuroscience companies were working on "pacemakers for the brain" to treat epilepsy or depression, and showing solid trials.

A marginal branch of neuroscience was now producing thousands of papers a year. Nature, the gold-standard journal, began cautiously surveying the research.

Peter Thiel once lamented: "They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters." This really was flying cars. I decided my next startup was going to make commercial neurostimulation real. 

I hooked up with a cyberneticist, Lee Von Kraus, went to Radio Shack, bought a breadboard and a few components, and we built a gadget that sends electromagnetic waves. I put it on my head. And this is when I saw the light. Meaning, I was completely blinded by a blast of current that overwhelmed my optic nerve with stimulation.

Realising I wasn't blind, I started looking for the boost. Singing songs, drawing dogs, memorising things. Nada. We started tinkering. The gadget was a little bundle of circuitry in a pill bottle, with batteries and electrodes. I tied them to my head with a shoelace. I put it on for 15 minutes, then played the iPhone running game Canabalt. I achieved five high scores in a row. Eureka.

We gathered up a dozen adventurers and put our homemade gadget on them, then ran a battery of standard cognitive psychology tests. They jumped a standard deviation in performance (the difference between a 20-year-old and a 60-year-old). Hard data.

Now things were getting exciting. A dinner-party conversation with an actor, and suddenly I was backstage with our gadget on Broadway. The actor put it on before show-time and delivered what he called the night of his life. A chat with one of the first investors to back our new company, Halo Neuroscience, led to his passion for racing. So we went to the race track, and he and his Porsche club tried our gadget. He set the track record.

It was becoming evident to me that neurostimulation can lift essentially any cognitive function: accelerate learning, enhance creativity, boost memory, juice linguistic fluidity. As a startup, we chose to target a medical condition.

We got off the race track and back into the lab, where we've just closed a successful 12-person controlled trial on fixing a particular brain impairment. We're about to move to a 100-person trial -- the largest ever done. In the super-human future, the potential of neurostimulation goes way beyond electro-doping Ferrari drivers: the real hope lies in treating brain damage, possibly from early next year.

Amol Sarva is an entrepreneur and cofounder of Virgin Mobile USA, Peek and Knotable. He blogs at