Manufacturers who market wearable brain devices claim they can do anything from boost memory and treat depression to improve sleep and reduce stress. But in a study published May 22 in the journal Neuron, a team of neuroethicists analyzed 41 brain devices sold online and found that although most of the companies made wide-ranging claims, few offered any scientific support and only eight provided a link to peer-reviewed research papers.
By marketing their products for wellness or recreation, rather than health, the sellers of the devices can avoid regulatory oversight from agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.
Some of the companies list relatively mild possible side effects such as skin irritation at the point of contact, headaches, pain, tingling, and nausea. But no studies have assessed the seriousness or frequency of those effects. Most of the companies don’t mention any risks in their online marketing, so consumers only learn of complications from the packaging after purchasing the product. Use of the devices is unsupervised, and many allow the user to control the level of stimulation. Consumers may think using the device over longer time periods and at more intense stimulation levels will increase the effectiveness, but there is very little long-term research on the safety of such use.
Judy Illes, the lead researcher, voiced concern that some companies market their product to children, whose still-developing brains may be particularly vulnerable to the effects. —J.B.