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“Performance staffs have done a great job at maximising training for the neck and below,” Chao tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “But a significant part of the way athletes perform is in the brain. There has been some significant work in the field of sports psychology and we want to come in on neurological side of brain performance.”
Halo Neuroscience is a San Francisco start-up whose headsets are becoming increasingly visible across elite sports, including the NFL, MLB, Olympic sport, and pro cycling. The devices are a fundamental part of Halo’s neuropriming process, which we went on to discuss with Chao in greater detail.
“Our headset looks like a set of regular headphones and that is down to a fortuitous piece of neuroanatomy,” he explains. “The part of the brain we need to target is the motor cortex and, anatomically, that sits right above our ears. It also helps with usability. It is important that teams can integrate our headsets into their existing workflow in such a way that they are almost doing nothing different.”
What is neuropriming?
Halo Neuroscience was co-founded in 2013 by Chao, a Stanford MD and MS in neuroscience; Brian Wingeier, a PhD with a biomedical engineering doctorate who studied at Tulane, Stanford and Swinburne; and Amol Sarva, who has a doctorate in cognitive science from Stanford. “We take a neuroscience approach to helping the brain learn those movement patterns that make athletes great at what they do,” says Chao. “We call the technology ‘neuropriming’ because we want to own that pre-workout for the brain.”
The act of neuropriming can increase the rate at which the brain can develop neural pathways, which in the case of athletes leads to accelerated learning and more meaningful practice sessions. Halo achieves this through those specially designed headsets, which contain soft electrodes at the base of the arches, known as ‘primers’, which deliver neurostimulation to the brain. “You would wet the primers in order to ensure good electrical contact with the scalp and that is done with simple tap water. The athlete then turns it on and the headset will be paired with our app via Bluetooth.”
When used for 20-minute sessions pre-workout, the Halo headset delivers this neurostimulation by sending light electrical pulses to the motor cortex, which controls movement in the body. What does the user experience during that time? “You can absolutely feel it. I’d say a tingling feeling is the best way to describe it,” pro cyclist and Halo user Andrew Talansky told Business Insider in June. “You can ratchet up or down the intensity, which, by the way, doesn’t actually indicate how effective it is – say, a seven instead of a ten – it’s more just for personal comfort.”
Where can performance gains be made? “What athletes immediately feel is a sensation of motor readiness,” replies Chao. “What they might feel in 20 or 30 minutes into a workout they feel from the outset.” Talansky described for Business Insider one particular gain he made in interval training by using Halo in his pre-workout: “In your first effort, if you’re doing five-minute intervals – even if it’s difficult and intense – you’re going to be pretty smooth and fluid. On the sixth one, maybe you’re going to be coming apart a bit. Halo has helped me improve staying efficient.”
Education, onboarding, deployment
Halo runs a dedicated partnership scheme, consisting of scientists, engineers and coaching consultants to service their clients at sports organisations. “A big part of what we do is delivering an awesome experience for our customers in terms of education, onboarding and deployment,” explains Chao. “To begin with, there will be a half-day in-person meeting where we’ll spend 90 minutes explaining the technology to the coaches and then field whatever questions they may have. It quickly turns into a hands-on application-specific conversation about how they will incorporate Halo into their existing workflow; the last thing we want to do is change anything. We’ll then often stay for the next day as the system goes live. At this stage we’ll be flies on the wall and there as a backstop should they need us, which most of the time, they don’t. Then we’ll leave everyone with our phone numbers and let them know that we have a low bar for reaching out, that service is part of the programme we’re providing.”
Chao’s goal of not disrupting existing workflows underpins Halo’s belief that it is merely another tool for sports organisations and athletes. He emphasises that their focus is purely the neuroscience aspects of brain training. “It’s important for people to understand that motor cortex neurostimulation doesn’t help with the psychological aspects of athleticism,” he says. “It doesn’t directly affect focus, motivation, calmness or poise in the moment – none of the valuable aspects that psychologists work on.”
Educating the market is their biggest challenge. “We’re grateful to our early customers but I’d say the majority of elite coaches and athletes don’t know about us. Even then, the first thing they hear might be the words ‘electrical stimulation’, which comes with baggage from previous crude and unsophisticated attempts – we’ve come a long way from the sledgehammer approach to neurostimulation.
“This works, we’ve got the data to back it up, there’s a space for it in your work with athletes and we would love the opportunity to prove ourselves to them.”