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Tomorrow’s world

A helmet that could boost your brain


American tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson is at “the forefront of the quantified-self movement”, says Ashlee Vance on Bloomberg. A 43-year-old former Mormon and overweight binge eater, he turned his life around by snorting stem cells and taking drug-induced “mind journeys” with his personal shaman. He now rises at 4am, eats a 2,250-calorie breakfast – and nothing else all day – before retiring at 8pm. As a result, he says he has the DNA of a 30-year-old.

In 2013 he sold his online payments business for $800m before starting a neural research business called Kernel. It’s now selling a $50,000 helmet that Johnson hopes will “unlock the secrets of the mind”. There are two models: Flow, which measures blood flow by firing laser pulses into the brain to see how it deals with problem-solving and emotions; and Flux, which evaluates brain performance, learning and information-handling by measuring electromagnetic activity. Neither is as sensitive as hospital brain scanners – but, unlike those hulking objects, they can generate valuable real-world data as users go about their lives. Think of them as a Fitbit for the brain.

“When you start quantifying the mind, you make thought and emotion an engineering discipline,” says Johnson. “[This] quantification leads to interventions.” Boston University will use the helmets to observe the brains of stroke and Parkinson’s disease patients, while Harvard Medical School will study the effects of obesity and meditation on the brain. Another customer will give its subjects psychedelic drugs and use the helmets to see what happens when they’re tripping: the aim is to research potential therapies. Johnson’s next goal? To reduce the price of his brain helmet to “the smartphone range” and put one “in every American household”.