Bioethics Blogs

Dopamine Stimulating Headphones and How They Can Change Our Definition of Being High

By Laura Morales
This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris in Summer 2016.

Laura Morales is 21 years old and originally from Panama. She is currently a senior pursuing a double major in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Psychology in Emory University in Atlanta, GA.
If you have ever heard a song that sends chills down your spine, relaxes your entire body and gives you a general feeling of being close to ecstasy, you have experienced the “high-like sensation” the makers of Nervana wish to tap into. The company Nervana has designed a set of headphones that, while playing music, transcutaneously send electrical signals into the left ear to stimulate the vagus nerve to match the frequency of the beat of the music. The vagus nerve is involved with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is normally activated when the body is at rest. This nerve stimulation results in the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins—these are transmitters thought to be related to that “feel-good” sensation (Ashby & Isen, 1999). Vagus nerve stimulation has been used to treat epilepsy (Schachter & Saper, 1998), although the mechanism through which it works is not well understood. While reducing seizures, there have also been reports that vagus nerve stimulation has improved the overall mood in people with epilepsy (Terry Jr, 2014). Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation has also been shown to have equivalent anticonvulsive effects as the more invasive method (Ellrich, 2011).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.