Can this £299 nausea-inducing device really trick the brain into losing weight?
An Irish neuroscientist believes he has found a way to make “useless” calorie counting diets redundant. His £299 electronic device that purports to “hack” the user’s brain to assist weight loss has just gone on the market. To date some 4,000 of the devices have been sold and shipped.
“Approximately half the population may be on a diet at any one time and they are nearly all wasting their time and money,” says Dr Jason McKeown, 32, originally from Portglenone in Antrim and who studied medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast. He set up the company to develop the device five years ago and is now based at the University of California (UC) in San Diego where he took up a neurology research position to becoming its youngest ever visiting scholar at its Brain and Cognition Centre.
“Of course, eating healthily is undoubtedly good for us but calorie-restricted diets are almost always destined to fail at bringing about longterm weight loss,” he says. “Our brains control our weight, our metabolism and our hunger levels. Specifically, studies over the last fifty years have consistently shown that the hypothalamus is ‘mission control’ for our weight.
“And our brains have both a very clear view of how much we should weigh and the ability to override attempts to weigh less. This is why when people go on a diet and lose a certain amount of weight they often plateau and then, in the majority of cases, see their weight creep back up again. Their brain is unhappy with the new lower weight.
“We all know that one person who can eat whatever they want and not put on weight, well the reason for that, scientifically, is that they are programmed that way.
“All of us have range of weight at which our brain is happy. This range is negatively influenced by a poor, high sugar diet – which nudges the range up. The only way to influence weight in the long-term is to reset the range.
“It’s not me saying calorie-restricted diets are unlikely to succeed, its millennia of human evolution.”
“Modius is a lightweight headset which, when worn for an hour a day for two to three months acts to help wearers reduce body weight ” says Dr McKeown. “It works by using a very gentle electrical stimulation to activate the relevant part of your brain. The brain interprets this as a signal to shift to a leaner state.
“Modius is for people who want to lead a healthy lifestyle, to take some regular exercise and eat pretty well; but it is less a killer-diet and more a fad diet-killer.
“The results from data we’ve seen so far from consumers is pretty astonishing,” says McKeown. “We have more than 150,000 hours worth of information from real people wearing the product in the real world. After three months of using Modius daily, 80 per cent of users who reported data lost weight. Of those 80 per cent there was an average weight loss of 7 lbs (half a stone) and the top 10 per cent lost 18 lbs on average.
“If our model is right these people are unlikely to put their weight back on again, which is the key difference. It really is the end of fad dieting for millions.”
He says his team collated over 150,000 hours worth of information from global users who spent three months wearing the device on a daily basis.
“We’ve analysed the data from about 650 people, of whom 80 per cent have reported, on average, 6lbs (2.7kg) of weight loss in six weeks.
“We’re finding that people are almost trying to test the device to some degree and some people are adamant that they won’t change anything about their life, whereas we’ve got other people who are really engaged and are actively trying to lose weight.”
“Also there are a range of metabolic issues – people with thyroid problems, people with diabetes, people on medication that we know influences weight – so over that wide spectrum we are actually very pleased with those results.”
It should be noted that much of the data Dr McKeown cites is self-reported by subjects taking part in the trials and, as such, would carry less weight in scientific peer review. The company is seeking approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to have the device used as a medical aid, but any official endorsement would depend on the outcome of independent tests.
“There are actually several clinical trials that we’re running and we hope to have about 300 people through those. That, of course, will be double-blind, random control, peer-reviewed,” he said.
“There’s an area in your brain – it’s called your hypothalamus – and it’s a really centre structure which controls things like your appetite, your metabolic rate, metabolic hormones and ultimately it determines how much body fat you’ll naturally store.
“That’s great if you have a lean hypothalamus and it keeps you lean and athletic – we all know people who can eat whatever they want and they tend to stay around the same weight.”
“We developed Modius to put a little electrical signal into the skin behind the ear because there is a nerve there which runs into the hypothalamus area,” Dr McKeown said. “The idea is that if we can repeatedly stimulate that area with a low-level electrical pulse behind the ear, it ultimately just makes it easier for someone who is trying to lose weight because they are not getting the same response that their body always [has] where it tries to keep fat storage.”
The gadget is not a “quick-fix” or miracle cure and will not compensate for an unhealthy diet and exercise regime, he stresses.
“People will be disappointed if they think they can just wear the headset for a week or two and squeeze into a dress for a wedding,” he said. “We’re really trying to encourage people to actively put this into a lifestyle – improve their general health, improve their physical activity levels and improve their nutrition and diet.”
MODIUS OPERANDI: WHAT IS MODIUS?
MODIUS is based on hypothalamus hacking and uses neuro-stimulation via a gadget worn over the head which has two pads that sit on top of the bone area behind the ears and low-level of electrical pulses are pushed through in order to stimulate the brain.
The electrical pulses sent to the vestibular nerve activate the hypothalamus and tricks the brain into thinking the wearer is not hungry. Its makers say it “generates a low-level electrical pulse that is interpreted by the brain as a signal to become leaner.”
The headset helps in decreasing appetite and prompts the metabolism to burn more fat. Some users have complained that the sensation – whose intensity can be controlled from levels of one to ten via a smartphone – can be unpleasant and like seasickness. The makers acknowledge that it may not be for everyone and people will have different reactions but they stress all users must stay still while using it for the recommended 45 minutes to one hour a day, five days a week. This is because the vestibular nerve which it stimulates governs balance. The makers also stress that it should be used in association with a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
Dr. McKeown says that while he tested a prototype he reduced his own body fat by 44 percent and added 2kg in lean muscle mass. The company has sold around 4,000 of the £299 headsets worth around £1.5 million. The steriles wipes and pads need to be renewed every couple of months and cost just under £30 each time.
WHAT IS MODIUS? A CASE HISTORY
Former Ulster, Ireland, British and Irish Lions star Stephen Ferris often tested his body to the full over his 10-year professional career. Forced to retire due to an ankle injury in 2014 he remains upbeat, positive and honest when it comes to life off the pitch but like most former sports stars, maintaining peak body shape when no longer competing on the pitch can be a struggle.
Adapting to life without the rigorous demands of international rugby requires a lot of personal focus and determination…particularly when it comes to keeping in good shape.
A chance meeting with leading neurosurgeon Dr McKeown sparked a friendship and collaboration.
“I met Jason in the gym and we struck up a friendship through our rugby connections. He explained his involvement in the development of Modius, I admit I was sceptical at first but after listening to Jason and the research behind device, I decided to give it a go.”
During his playing career, Stephen had always followed a rigorous training and dietary programme. Life post rugby however was not so closely managed nor monitored.
“When it came to fitness and nutrition I always played by the rules. I trained hard and I played hard – literally. But when injury finally forced me into early retirement, I no longer had the backup of a PT, nutritionist and conditioning coach to guide me on a day-to-day basis. Going solo meant rethinking my approach, as running was off the agenda due to my ankle injury.
“Now I follow a weight-based training programme and restrict my cardio to rowing or mountain biking. I’ve always had a huge appetite, which was fine when playing rugby as I needed the calories, but without the high intensity training I have to be careful as I don’t burn them off.
“I also have a very sweet tooth, so even after finishing a big dinner, I find myself craving ice-cream or desserts.”
Stephen didn’t want to lose weight, but he had plateaued and wanted to better manage his diet and lifestyle, control his appetite and gain more lean muscle mass. He accepted a 90-day challenge using Modius during which he he lost 2.1kg in body weight, his total body fat reduced from 17.7 per cent to 15.6 per cent and his lean mass weight increased from 89.2kg to 91kg – up 2.2 per cent without any change of training routine. The latter part of his trial coincided with a holiday in Mexico and a busy period of work, including commentating on the Six Nations Championships, and celebrating with the Ireland team when they won the Grand Slam!
“Modius helped me control my appetite – I simply didn’t need to eat so much. My training routine didn’t change at all, in fact during the latter part of the trial I didn’t train as much as normal due to holidays and Grand Slam celebrations but I still lost weight and gained more lean muscle mass.
“I also found my sleeping pattern improved hugely. Previously I was very restless and was up several times during the night – but I started to sleep soundly through the night. It may not be directly related but it’s certainly a bonus.”