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Why Some Olympians Are Wearing Brain-Zapping Headphones

Halo Sport

Elite competitions often come down to milliseconds. That could be why some of Team USA's sprinters (like 400-meter hurdler Michael Tinsley and Mike Rodgers, who will compete in the 4x100-meter relay) have sought a competitive edge for the Rio Olympics through a pair of seriously high-tech headphones.

The Halo Sport may look like a pair of Beats by Dre headphones, but it's actually a device that uses neuroscience to prime your brain for athletics.

Say whaa? This is a far cry from sports psychology, ladies. The headset works through a process called neuropriming, explains Daniel Chao, M.D., a neuroscientist and CEO of Halo Neuroscience, the company that created Halo Sport.

When you put it on, foam "primers" deliver an electrical stimulation to your brain, helping it reach a stage of what's called hyperplasticity. (You'll feel a tingle, Chao says.) "In this state, each thing is more meaningful to the brain." In the case of sprinters, this could come in handy when it comes to practicing their starts or the technique they use to finish a race. Since sports tend to require a lot of practice and repetition, such a mental state, Chao says, could be beneficial to athletes.

Specifically, the device targets your motor cortex—the part of your brain that controls movements. "When you train while the motor cortex is in a state of hyperplasticity, each one of those repetitions you do becomes 'stickier,'" Chao explains. Halo says this stimulation could forge stronger connections between neurons and muscles.

So why sprinters? "There's a lot of technique in sprinting," says Chao. And some of the athletes Halo has worked with have reported better technique since using the device; they also report that if they use Halo in a warm-up, mentally, they're more ready to start their workout, Chao notes.

And while zapping your brain with an electrical current might sound a little scary, Chao notes: "There is nothing to suggest that we are pushing the brain into a state that is unsafe for the person." (Psst...Here's how training can make you mentally tougher.)

Okay, so what does this all mean for you? As Chao puts it: You don't need to be an elite athlete—or even a competitive athlete—to want to be better. He says the device aligns well with data-driven sports like running, cycling, or triathlons where you can "compare yourself against yourself." And for the hefty price of $649, you can snag your own pair this fall. (We just can't promise it'll win you gold.)

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