A couple decades ago, when Daniel Chao was a Stanford med student fascinated with the workings of the brain, he took a pharmacology class that bummed him out: "Drugs for the brain were a travesty," he says. "You take a pill and it bombards your entire body, when all it needs to do is affect a small part of your brain." Efficaciousness was low; side effects were dismal. This bummer led Chao to what he calls a "fuck-you" epiphany: "I was in Silicon Valley, surrounded by tech, and I wondered: Could you use electricity to treat the brain, instead?"
That question led him, after some twists and turns, to co-found Halo Neuroscience, a San-Francisco-based startup that raised $9 million in funding this year from investors, including venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Chao is at his downtown office, showing me his premier product, Halo Sport, a headset that deploys "electrical neurostimulation to create lasting changes in brain function," as he puts it. In plainer English, the pitch – borne out by trials on elite and non-elite athletes alike, according to Chao – is that if you wear Halo Sport for twenty minutes, then practice drills like piano-playing or weight-lifting, videogaming or free-throw shooting, you'll get better, quicker. "It works with anything movement-based that's hard to learn," Chao says.
The device resembles studio headphones – and they work as headphones, too – except it's lined with soft nodes that nestle against the scalp and deliver electric pulses to parts of the brain associated with motor skills, inducing a pliant state: "In tests, we see that skill acquisition happens faster when paired with neurostimulation," Chao says. The company's got an impressive list of clients so far: the U.S. Olympic Ski Team has trained with Halo Sport; so have the Golden State Warriors, members of the Patriots and the Raiders, and Navy Seals. The pre-order run of Halo Sport headsets sold out, though as of this week they're available for $699 a piece.
Chao's bona fides when it comes to the brain are ample. Before co-founding Halo, he worked at a company called Neuropace, which focused on experimental treatments for severe epileptics. "We implanted electrodes in the brain and a pulse generator in the skull," he recalls. An in-skull sensor monitored brain activity, and when it detected likely signs of an imminent seizure, it delivered electrical pulses that nullified the threat: "It was like putting out a forest fire when it was only a match," Chao explains. It was rewarding work. "We're talking about the dregs of the epileptic world – people who couldn't hold down jobs, people who had to live with their parents, people who couldn't cook their own meals, all because their seizures were so extreme – getting their lives back." But before long Chao experienced "my second fuck-you moment," as he puts it, when he sought to apply the same principal non-invasively: "It was a two to three hour surgery, and that's a huge leap for anyone to take. That was the inspiration for Halo: Can we do it from the outside?" Whereas the part of the brain associated with epilepsy is deep, motor function resides close enough to the scalp that Halo Sport's nodes can tweak it through the skin – so that's where Chao's attention shifted.
The potential applications are broad. Halo's targeting the athletics market now, but Chao envisions a future in which his device helps, for instance, "stroke patients with rehab, the same way the headset helps Steph Curry with his three," he says, and in which "a fleet" of different headsets plasticize other parts of the brain, like, say, those brought to bear on language acquisition. "What if you could learn to speak Chinese faster? Think of all the things you'd like to learn, but it takes too much time. Movement is the tip of the iceberg," Chao says. He fits the headset to my skull and starts the pulsations. My head starts tingling. "Neuroplasticity is something we all have as kids and have less of now," he says. "What we're basically asking is, 'Can we make our brains more kid-like?'"