I purposely sent electricity to my head with the Kortex, and I entered Nirvana

Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

It’s a pretty familiar scenario: You lay down at night, absolutely exhausted, and find your mind is still moving at 100 miles per hour. As you try to wind down you start thinking about what you need to do, and what you didn’t do, and struggle to fall asleep. The next morning, you wake up unrested and on edge. 

If you’ve tried meditation, improving your sleep hygiene, or any other number of holistic treatments without success, it may be time to up the ante. Kortex is a health wearable that claims it will help alleviate stress as well as improve your sleep, using low-dose, non-invasive electrotherapy. The device consists of two sponges that attach to a box containing the electronics, via removable wires; each sponge is attached to the temple area on the sides of your head, behind the eyes, and the whole thing can then be worn on your head. The company claims that by using its neurostimulation technology twice a day for 20 minutes, Kortex will improve your overall well-being. We tried the Kortex for a month, and despite some initial concerns about its gimmicky appearance, it actually delivers on its claims. But before we talk about our experience, let us explain what neurostimulation is.

Modern technology based on ancient therapy

Kortex is a product designed for neurostimulation therapy. It uses a small amount of pulsating electrical current (1-2 milliamperes) to modulate nervous system activity. That disruption in the nervous system is believed to help the body release certain neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain that may help you feel more balanced and relaxed.  

Kortex side back
Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

While some may joke that Kortex is an at-home electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) kit, nothing could be further from the truth. ECT relies upon a massive amount of electrical current (up to 460 volts) to induce a brief seizure in individuals with chronic and debilitating mental illnesses,  who have not responded to other treatments. Kortex, on the other hand, stimulates the brain with a minuscule amount of electricity in an effort to increase serotonin and melatonin production while reducing cortisol levels.

Kortex was invented by the same company that manufactures the Fisher Wallace Stimulator, an FDA-cleared device that’s been used for decades to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, and chronic pain. And while the both devices have the same internal technology, Kortex is FDA-cleared only as a general-wellness device to help reduce stress and improve sleep. Even though the devices are largely the same, Kortex is not recommend to treat psychiatric conditions. (FDA-cleared defines products that pose a lower risk and don’t require clinical testing, versus FDA-approved which goes through more stringent testing.)

Electrotherapy is not a new idea; it’s been used for millennia to treat a variety of ailments. The technology is used in a number of medical use cases, from over the counter TENS units for minor pain to implantable devices such as the cochlear implant for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In a recent study, scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles used electric stimulation to help people with severe spinal cord injuries to regain control of their hands and fingers. And the market for home devices is growing: by 2023 it’s estimated that the neurostimulation device market will be worth more than $13 billion dollars.

Cheap look and feel, but high priced

For $500, Kortex looks a little cheap. The main component of the device is a chunky, 6-inch plastic unit with a dial and a few indicator lights. On the back you’ll find a battery compartment and two clips that can affix to the Velcro strap that is included. 

There are two leads that come out of either side of the device and snap onto rubberized electrodes. Inside the electrodes are two small sponges that need to be moistened before using.

Steven Winkelman
Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

In addition to the actual device itself, Kortex ships with six electrode sponges as well as a nylon case. Since the sponges only last a few weeks with daily use, you may want to order replacements or set up auto-shipments.

While the Kortex seems a little flimsy, it’s unlikely you’ll be carrying the device around on a daily basis, so it’s not too concerning. It does, however, ship with a one-year warranty should you have any problems. And since its parent company, Fisher Wallace, has been around for a long time, we doubt you’ll have difficulty getting any replacement sponges or parts should you need them in the future.

Surprise! It actually works

I first tried Kortex at a press event in January. A representative placed me in an office chair, gave me a Samsung Gear VR headset to strap on, and then gently placed moist sponge electrodes on each temple. I was told to work my way through the first level of the VR game Land’s End while the Kortex gently delivered a minuscule amount of electricity to my brain for 20 minutes. 

At the end of the first session I was not left with a sensation of calm or mental clarity. Instead, I left with a minor headache. As I shared my experience with the Kortex representative, he explained I’d need to use the device consistently for at least a few weeks to see results. I decided to take the bait and committed to using Kortex twice a day, for a month.

The overall experience is a little disconcerting at first. The very act of just placing a wet spongy electrode against each temple is not something most people will want to do voluntarily. And when you turn the device on, things get a little more worrisome: There’s a small, almost imperceptible, shock and flickering in your peripheral vision that occurs throughout the entire 20-minute session. While it’s optional, Kortex suggests using the device in conjunction with a VR headset, as I did during the press briefing (Kortex provides a free copy of Land’s End, but the headset is a separate purchase).

I’m not going to lie: My first week using Kortex was rough. Every time I’d strap those spongy electrodes to the skin of my skull, I’d end up with a minor headache. I also stopped using the VR headset because together with the Kortex, it was uncomfortable to use. While there are two settings on the Kortex, I didn’t notice much of a difference in terms of side effects, so I decided to power through — in the name of science, or journalism, or whatever it is that I’ve gotten myself into — hoping they would subside. And they did. 

Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

During the second week the side effects largely disappeared and it became easier to notice what the Kortex was actually doing. The changes were relatively minor and short-lived, at first: my mind began to slow down for a few hours. Sleep became a little more restful. I was able to better focus on tasks. 

Throughout the rest of my month with Kortex, I noticed those short-lived benefits started to carry on throughout most of the day. By the end of the month, the changes were consistent and constant.

Bring back the noise

As I neared the end of my month-long Kortex experiment, I began to notice another change that was unexpected: I actually missed some of that mental clutter that had become so familiar pre-Kortex. While it’s nice to turn off the noise sometimes, I don’t think I’d ever want to live in silence. Therefore, I’m not sure if I would continue using it.

While I entered the Kortex experiment with a healthy dose of skepticism, I admit that I’m leaving a reluctant convert. By no means am I certified to give anyone medical advice, but I believe that, with consistent use, Kortex can help reduce stress and improve sleep. At $500, however, Kortex is a pretty significant investment.

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