What About Brain Wearables?

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It seems that there is a wearable to track everything these days. Fitness trackers alone built an empire by assessing users’ heart rate, steps, muscle tension, respiration, and body temperature. Then there are the novel devices, from blood-sugar monitoring smart lenses to skin patches that prevent over-exposure to harmful UV rays.

But what about wearables that deliver bio-feedback on your brain by using electroencephalography (EEG)?

Starting in 2009 with NeuroSky’s first EEG headset, a slew of commercial brain wearables have emerged that claim to help users to increase attention, gain focus, and decrease stress.

Muse, for example, is InteraXon’s sleek brainwave sensing headband that promises to aid users to achieve deeper meditations. The sleek device uses four sensors–two at the forehead and two behind the ears–to provide feedback on brain activity to mobile devices through Bluetooth. Users can review the data to assess how successful their meditations were, or to find room for improvement.

Some experts have expressed concern, however, that these types of wearables may not actually work as well as buyers think. For starters, brain waves are incredibly faint signals that are difficult to monitor even in high-end laboratory settings, let alone with a device at home.

“If it’s difficult to detect those tiny signals in the laboratory with high-quality and expensive equipment,” said Gerwin Schalk, a neuroscientist and Lab Director at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center, “clearly this issue is going to face even greater challenges [outside of the lab].”

EEG devices commonly pick up extraneous signals, or “noise,” either from inside the body, muscle movement, or from nearby electrical activity. In commercial wearables, these readings may pollute the data provided to users about the electric activity going on inside their brains.

In an interview with LiveScience, Schalk explained that scientists combat the issue of noise by applying conductive paste beneath the electrodes, rendering them “wet.” Unfortunately, this process cannot be applied to commercial wearables, because they use “dry” electrodes.

Furthermore, most commercial brain wearables make use of a handful of sensors for gathering data, where as in lab environments, scientists will wire study participants with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of sensors. By using a greater number of sensors, researchers can ensure that their readings are as reliable and robust as possible.

“You’re always going to get a better signal with more channels,” said Graeme Moffat, Director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at Muse. “If you could convince someone to put on a 64-channel cap, you would be able to…parse brain activity more effectively than with a four-channel system.”

Of course, developers want to design devices that are not only effective, but that also satisfy the expectations of potential buyers. InteraXon is working to refine its EEG systems to create a more precise experience for users.