You were only supposed to blow the bloody occipital cortex off.
The human brain is fast becoming a new frontier for business. Neuromarketing, ‘brain-training’ companies, and therapeutic programs that contain some kind of neuro-twist are proliferating at a very high rate. Somewhat more disconcertingly, a couple of new products actually aim to make a more direct interface with your brain. ‘Melon’ (currently getting funded on KickStarter) is a headband that measures your EEG signal in order to help maintaining focus on tasks, and a company called foc.us is currently marketing a trans-cranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) device that claims to directly modulate brain activity in the frontal lobes by the use of electric currents. In case you’re wondering about that last one, then yes, it’s absolutely as terrifying and ill-advised as it sounds. At the other end of the scariness/lunacy/class-action-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen scale are relatively harmless products like ‘Neuro’ energy drinks, or Neurozan dietary supplements.
So, neuro-business is definitely becoming a thing, and it’s a safe bet that we can expect to see many more products of this type in the future. But there’s a problem: the neuroscientists. Those slightly weird, often scruffily dressed, usually somewhat nerdy people who spend their time in basement labs and only occasionally emerge blinking into the sunlight to pour buckets of cold cerebrospinal fluid over perfectly legitimate business ideas and marketing campaigns. “Where’s the evidence?” they whine, mostly to other neuroscientists on Twitter, or on blogs like this one that no-one else reads. “Show us the data” and “Does it really work?” they screech, incessantly.
So, maybe you’ve got an idea for a hot new brain-mangling device, or a new twist on the brain training band-wagon. Maybe you’ve even got a new therapy technique that you’ve lovingly crafted over years of working with special-needs children, that you genuinely believe could make a profound and lasting difference to people’s lives, and that you’re just itching to share with the world. That’s great! But what can you do to ensure you’re not harassed by hordes of killjoy brain-botherers as you develop and market your product? Presented below is a handy guide to doing neuro-product-development the right way. Follow this simple process, and grateful, happy customers will be throwing big piles of cash at you before you can say ‘rostral orbito-frontal para-cingulate gyrus’.
1. Evaluate your product. Really evaluate it.
This is the big one. This is the Manhattan Project, the Everest, the Moon-shot, the X prize. I’m not going to lie to you; it’s not going to be easy, or fast, or cheap, but if you’ve got a product that you really believe in, don’t you owe it to your investors and customers to do everything you can to show that it works? Of course you do.
What you need to do in most cases is conduct a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) of your product. The ‘randomised’ bit means that participants are assigned to each group at random and the ‘controlled’ bit indicates that typically a product or treatment is compared against a placebo, or sometimes against an existing active product (both can be ‘control’ conditions). The trial should be well-powered (meaning it should have an adequate number of people in it to be able to demonstrate the hypothesised effect) and ideally double-blinded (meaning that neither the participants, nor those administering the tests, should know whether they are in the ‘active’ or ‘placebo’ groups).
Running a well-conducted RCT is not a trivial task; fortunately help is available. Contract Research Organisations (CROs) will run the trial for you. This is certainly the fastest way of getting it done, but probably also the most expensive. Another way might be to find a friendly academic who works in a research field related to your product, and get them to do it for you. Many academics are desperate for cash and would be only too happy to get some industry funding to run a research project. You may need to stump up enough money to employ a research assistant for the duration of the project, it might take some time, and they’re unlikely to be quite as professional about it as the CROs, but they definitely have the skills and experience needed to do a good job. This also has the added benefit of being an (at least nominally) independent evaluation; for added scientific credibility points you could even sponsor studies at more than one academic institution, using different participant samples, in different locations.
2. Make the results public
What’s the point of conducting a fantastic piece of research if nobody ever knows about it? You need to publish your findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. If you’re doing it in collaboration with academics, they’ll definitely want to do this anyway, so it’s a win-win for all concerned. Ideally, you would also make all the raw data from the trial available and freely-downloadable from your website; that way you can get further (free!) verification of your results from data-nerds who like playing with that kind of thing.
3. Market it on the basis of your data
So you’ve done the testing, you’ve published the results; you’re ready to go! I know it’s probably all very exciting at this point, but you need to take a couple of deep breaths and tread carefully. All the hard work you’ve put into testing your product will be a waste of effort if you don’t stick closely to the results in your marketing. Don’t make wild claims about the product’s effectiveness that aren’t supported by the data. Don’t claim that it’s effective in treating say, autism, when you’ve only actually tested it on an ADHD population. Don’t say that it can boost performance in healthy people when you’ve only tested it on a patient group. Any claims you make that go beyond what you can actually prove will only hurt you in the long run, and will bring down the wrath of the neuro-nerds.
This approach might seem laborious; it’s the kind of procedure that pharmaceutical companies have to go through when making licensing applications to the FDA for new drugs. Neuro-products are lightly regulated at the moment because it’s very new, so there’s no legal obligation to do anything. However, if some of them really can change the brain in a meaningful way, shouldn’t they be held to the same standard as psychoactive drugs? At least there’s a moral obligation there, if not (yet) a legal one.
Doing due diligence in terms of product evaluation also serves to mitigate what I like to call the penis enlargement problem. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that someone has invented a treatment that can genuinely enlarge penises. This hypothetical treatment is safe, effective, and works in 100% of men. Unfortunately, no-one will ever know about it, because of the enormous number of bogus penis-enlargement treatments that are promoted in spam emails and pop-up ads all over the internet. Proving your product is effective in the most rigorous way possible, and freely publishing the results and the data is the most effective way of differentiating your business from the hordes of phony neuro-products (of which there are many) out there.
Alternatively, if this all seems like too much of a bother, you can just re-cycle some old therapy techniques using new jargon, or bolt together some old academic research with a piece of new technology. Hire someone to make a really slick website, stick some fake customer testimonials up there and start selling a product that doesn’t really work, and may even actually be dangerous. You won’t be alone; that’s pretty much what everyone else is doing at the moment.
A handy flow-chart to illustrate the simple 3-step process of neuro-product development.