Since 2018, business leaders and other high-paying guests have been flocking to a wellness clinic on the coast of Spain to relax, to reset — and for new brain-altering treatments that the clinic says help improve performance. This, despite some U.S. doctors' warnings.
Sha Wellness Clinic, located along Spain's Mediterranean coastline in the province of Alicante, is luxurious and picturesque, and it's one of the few places in the world that offers two particular brain treatments to paying guests: brain photobiomodulation and transcranial current stimulation treatment.
Shas vice president, Alejandro Bataller, told Wired that the treatments attract many of the world's decision-makers and people who live very "stressful lives" to help them boost their brain activity and up their productivity at work.
And the treatments are not cheap: Programs that include the brain treatments at the fancy resort-style clinic start at $4,000, and accommodations (for a minimum weeklong stay) range from $360 to $8,200 a night.
One of the neuro treatments, called photobiomodulation, uses red or near-infrared light to stimulate, heal and regenerate brain cells and tissue.
At Sha, where the clinic's brain stimulation unit is run by Bruno Ribeiro do Couto (who holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Valencia and a master's degree in clinical psychology from the Institute of Health Sciences of Porto, Portugal), the treatment is given via a headset that sends varying infrared-light wavelengths to dormant parts of the brain. That stimulates and regenerates brain tissue, giving clients a brain-performance boost, according to the clinic.
What's more, according to Bataller, clients also experience "improved energy" and a "positive state of mind" after a few 45-minute sessions, he tells CNBC Make It.
Emiliano Santarnecchi, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, tells CNBC Make It that people who undergo photobiomodulation may experience a brain boost because the passing infrared light increases the brain cells' energy levels — that ultimately leads to faster brain function, which increases learning.
Indeed, the technology, which was first discovered in 1967, has been linked to treating traumatic brain injuries and psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety. However, there is scarce and mixed science on whether photobiomodulation works on healthy people. At least one study found "improved cognitive and emotional functions" in a healthy test group. But another recent study had different results: During a "single-blind" experiment (where only the experimenters, not the individuals tested, knew whether subjects were given the treatment), researchers found a large increase in learning using photobiomodulation in healthy adults. But during a double-blind study (neither the subjects nor the experimenters knew who received the treatment) there was no increased learning from from photobiomodulation.
"Usually if an effect is real, it works for both single-blind and double-blind versions," Vince Clark, author of the recent study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of New Mexico, tells CNBC Make It.
And many U.S. doctors say there isn't enough data available on the process to make it safe for consumers.
"Photobiomodulation is real science that is not ready for people or patients," neuroscientist and brain surgeon Rahul Jandial at City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, and author of "Neurofitness" tells CNBC Make It. Jandial says that adding certain wavelengths of light can change the chemicals and ions floating inside and around our brains and more research needs to be done on the long-term effects of those changes.
Santarnecchi and neuroscientist and CEO of Posit Science, Henry W. Mahncke, who both studied photobiomodulation, also agree that it's too early for consumer treatments.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has not approved photobiomodulation for treating psychological disorders as described by Bataller or for its brain-boosting capabilities, but photobiomodulation devices for the temporary relief of minor chronic neck and shoulder pain have been approved by the agency.
The second brain treatment offered at Sha, is transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDSC). It uses direct electrical currents to stimulate specific parts of the brain and was originally developed to help patients with brain injuries or psychiatric conditions. Researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins Medicine both describe the treatment as painless and noninvasive.
Santarnecchi says tDSC can be used to either increase or decrease excitability in our brains — making it more or less responsive, depending on the region being stimulated, which can translate into behavioral and cognitive effects. For example, "when a region related to memory performance is stimulated, increasing its excitability can make [you] faster or more accurate at a memory task, while decreasing excitability can impair [one's] performance," Santarneechi says.
During treatment at Sha, a low-intensity electrical current is delivered via electrodes inside a headset to stimulate specific parts of the brain.
Bataller says the treatment is used to analyze, diagnose and treat neurological disorders such as depression, chronic pain, sleep disorders, strokes and addictions on its guests as well as for its brain-boosting benefits. He says effects like improved memory, better sleep and endurance are noticeable after the first session but recommends at least five (which is included the Sha program cost) to see full results.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, several studies have suggested the treatment may be a valuable tool in aiding those conditions. Other studies have claimed tDSC can improve memory, boost endurance and even reduce prejudice in healthy individuals.
Outside of Sha's tDSC service, people are buying their own tDSC headsets online — or making them at home by attaching a nine-volt battery to their scalp using online explainers in hopes of improving brain function. There are currently more than 12,000 users on a Reddit tDCS chat group that exchanges ideas surrounding the technology.
However, doctors have warned against using the technology, especially do-it-yourself kits, as there are still a lot of unknowns.
In an op-ed, a group of clinicians and scientists from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania who have extensively studied noninvasive brain stimulation outlined a list of problematic issues that may come with a tDSC treatment, such as changes in brain activity.
"Enhancement of some cognitive abilities may come at the cost of others," the doctors wrote, meaning stimulating one brain area may negatively affect the performance of another.
"For example, tDCS can enhance the rate of learning new material, but at the cost of processing learned material, and vice versa, depending on the stimulation site. Such tradeoffs are likely under-recognized, as most tDCS studies focus on only one or two tasks. Furthermore, such cognitive tradeoffs could develop over time and only become recognizable long after the stimulation," the doctors added.
However, Santarnecchi, who has studied tDCS at Harvard for years, says the procedure is completely safe if used for only 20 to 30 minutes a day for six weeks at a time. He also says there is no data suggesting that people can't stimulate for longer periods of time.
"Hundreds of thousands of studies and reviews have been done on tDSC," Santarnecchi tells CNBC Make It, adding that no major issues have been found.
However, in the U.S., no tDSC devices have been approved by the FDA for medical treatment.
Since adding the brain health treatments, Bataller says the clinic, which opened in 2008, has seen a remarkable increase in guests coming specifically for these treatments. (Battaller, however, would not disclose how many people have gotten the brain treatments over the last year but did say that more than 50,000 people from all over the world have visited the spa, including CEOs.)
"[The treatment] appeals to guests who are wondering how they can age with a brain that is functioning at its maximum [and for those] looking to improve their energy and performance," he says.
Sha offers 12 health programs with brain treatments included in its "Healthy Aging" program, which start at 7,500 euros (around $8,300). But according to a spokesperson, brain treatments can be added to all the programs for an additional cost (which varies). Other programs include colon hydrotherapy, acupuncture and dental services.
The clinic also offers a group "business reset" program for senior management teams to boost productivity. It includes group meditation classes, a group coaching session on stress management and an outdoor training session. Individuals will also be able to get a neurofeedback session administered by the clinic's brain stimulation unit.
Sha says its medical team is fully aware that medical advances are "in continuous research, and therefore, there will always be more to investigate" when it comes to the procedures.
Correction: This article has been revised to reflect Sha's brain-boosting programs start at $4,000.
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