Its first wearable device, priced at $199, promised to energize you with a few zaps of electrical pulses to the neck.
Now, the startup Thync is developing a new model aimed at reducing stress. After sinking $30 million into research and development at Thync, the team set out recently to test the second-generation model — in a trailer park in Warren, Mich.
It’s collecting some positive reviews. But the science behind the buzzy new technology?
The sleek device — which, like the company, is called Thync — fires off low-level electrical pulses known, of course, as “Thync vibes.” Those electrical signals are sent through wired strips placed on the neck. Users can control the intensity using a smartphone app, choosing from among mood settings like “Bliss” or “Holiday Lights.”
The company claims its device can be as powerfully relaxing as two Xanaxes.
“It’s a fundamentally new way to change how you feel,” said Isy Goldwasser, the founder and CEO of Thync.
Though Thync has published a safety study to show that the product won’t harm users, the studies Thync cites as evidence it’ll actually work are thin. One experiment, published last year in Scientific Reports, gave 20 patients either a sham device or the Thync product. The researchers then snapped thermal pictures of participants’ faces and found that temperatures varied between the two groups. Patients using Thync had higher temperatures in some spots on the face. The authors concluded that those higher temperatures were a sign of “increased positive emotional states.”
Ki Goosens, a neuroscientist who studies stress at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who reviewed the study, called facial temperatures an “obscure” measure.
“It looks to me like they don’t even have a stress response,” Goosens added. “The classic measure of stress, cortisol levels, had no effect.”
The paper also includes data from 45 participants who used either the device or a sham product for one session. Those who used Thync reported slightly lower levels of anxiety and tension. There wasn’t any difference in the other five categories measured, including fatigue and depression.
Goosens said the device most likely works through the placebo effect. “People who buy this would buy it expecting it to alleviate stress. Placebo effects against pain and stress are quite significant in human subjects,” she said.
A test run in a trailer park
Detroit has a reputation as a stressful city, so Thync decided to test its new device, which is expected to hit the market next summer, somewhere in the area.
The company sent Darren Shuster, a representative for Los Angeles-based Pop Culture PR, to find a good spot. Shuster hauled the prototypes to a dozen trailer parks looking for takers to participate in a weeklong test run. (Why trailer parks? Thync representatives reasoned that they would be among the more stressful places to live in an already stressed-out part of the country.)
“We wanted real feedback and real experiences, not the stress of ‘The traffic is really bad today’ or ‘I’m having a bad hair day,'” Shuster said.
Many people were skeptical — Shuster said he was chased out of one trailer park by a dog. He finally found a receptive crowd in Twin Pines Mobile Home Park in Warren. Shuster handed out Thyncs and iPods to about 30 residents. Those devices will be collected in a week’s time, once Thync has received feedback. Residents were paid $25 to come hear about the devices, and will receive another $75 when they turn the Thync prototypes back in.
Even before getting the user reviews, however, Thync was promoting the experiment, sending the press dramatic black-and-white photographs showing weary-looking residents testing the device.
Among them: Twin Pines resident Melissa Rupard, 48, who has struggled with back and neck pain her entire life and recently applied for disability. She was excited to test the device after receiving training from Shuster and a Thync employee. She’s used it about three times a day for three days and said it seems to have helped with her neck pain — though the device is marketed as a stress-reduction tool.
“I woke up and my neck isn’t as bad is it was,” Rupard said. “It felt like I was getting a nice massage.”
Goosens, the neuroscientist, said that might well be the case. The device covers a wide enough part of the neck to potentially massage sore muscles a bit. And the instructions do recommend that you relax while wearing a Thync — which can also be a natural means of stress reduction.
“I’m sure if you have your feet rubbed, it’s probably also going to reduce your feelings of stress and anxiety,” she said.
But Goosens said there’s no data to suggest the device can alleviate our most intense stress responses — the ones that are the most detrimental to our health. “I don’t necessarily buy their explanation,” she said.
Mixed reviews online
There are implantable devices now on the market that stimulate the nerves directly to treat chronic pain. Thync, by contrast, isn’t approved to treat any actual medical condition. It’s regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as a non-invasive, battery-powered stimulator — solely for recreational use.
“The way these devices work isn’t really well-understood,” said Jason Moehringer, a Maryland-based psychologist who conducted a literature review of the data on Thync and two similar devices.
The initial product, which went on the market last year, has received mixed reviews. Goldwasser, the Thync CEO, said there’s an inherent variability in how such devices work for different people.
“It’s like caffeine. If you take 10 people in your office, a few are going to be really sensitive and can’t have it past 2 p.m.,” he explained, “while a few can have it at any time.”
Goldwasser estimated that the product is effective in 80 percent of users who pay close attention to the instructions and play around to get the placing and levels just right. But for the regular shopper who gives it a go just once to see if their stress is lessened, Goldwasser estimated efficacy falls to about 50 percent. He pointed to the product’s mixed Amazon reviews, some of which were written by individuals who received a free Thync to try in exchange for posting feedback.
The top comment: “This is an expensive device with mildly noticeable effects at best and the considerable ongoing expenses are clandestine.” (Such expenses include buying new strips to place on the neck each time the device is used.) “This technology is a long way away from being worthwhile,” the user concluded.
Others, however, seem to have found success: “[First] time I used Bliss mode I was amazed,” one buyer wrote. “I felt like I had glass of scotch.”
And how about the residents of Twin Pines Mobile Home Park? Are they likely to buy the product when it hits the market? Rupard said she’d like to continue using it to alleviate neck pain, but can’t.
“Most of the people here are on Social Security or disability,” Rupard said. “Their income, they wouldn’t buy it. I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”