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 (1-4 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.

For $500, Kortex looks a little cheap.

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 categorized as a general-wellness device by the FCC 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. 

Sleep became a little more restful. I was able to better focus on tasks.

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.

Product Review

The competition was fierce, and this is the best TV of 2018

With stellar picture quality, excellent ease of use, and rich features, the LG C8 OLED is the best TV you can buy in 2018, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is right for you. Check out our review to learn more.

Still have money in your Flexible Spending Account? Head to the FSA online store

Don’t panic if you still have money sitting in your FSA and no doctor's appointments on the horizon. The FSA store has plenty of cool, useful gizmos you’ll want to purchase for your home and your health.

The best weather apps for the iPhone

Don't rely solely on your local meteorologist to stay up to date on the weather. Take matters into your own hands with one of these weather apps, each of which brings something unique to the table.

Google’s updated Santa Tracker entertains and teaches coding throughout December

Google's Santa Tracker is in its fifteenth year and is back again with even more features. You can have fun with more than 20 games, learn about different holiday traditions around the world, and enjoy some festive animations.

The $200 TicWatch C2 smartwatch is now being sold in the U.S. and U.K.

Digital well-being and disconnecting from your phone is one of 2018's big trends. Mobvoi wants you to think about its TicWatch C2 smartwatch as a great way to help you use your phone less.

The Palm has been revived, and is now available in the U.S. and U.K.

A reboot of the classic Palm is finally here and it's tiny. It syncs to your phone and acts as a secondary device -- with a feature to help you disconnect from technology. The Palm will be available exclusively through Verizon for $350.

Car-branded phones need to make a U-turn if they ever want to impress

Your car and your smartphone are becoming one, yet smartphones branded or co-created by car companies are a problem. We look at the history, some examples of the best and worst, then share hopes for the future.

Yes, we really are getting a special McLaren edition of the OnePlus 6T

OnePlus has announced a partnership with McLaren F1, emphasizing a shared interest in speed. The phone company is known for producing special edition devices. Here's what we know about the OnePlus 6T Mclaren Edition.

Simplify your life with one of these wireless smartphone charger deals

Banish nightly cable fumbling with a wireless smartphone charger. If your smartphone is compatible with wireless charging, the simplicity of placing it on a pad is a beautiful thing. Wireless chargers are also excellent gifts for coworkers.

Microsoft Outlook for iOS gets big redesign, with Dark Mode coming soon

Microsoft has deployed a huge redesign for its Outlook for iOS app, which includes new blue branding and some quality-of-life improvements. Dark Mode isn't included, but it's coming soon.

Our favorite Windows apps will help you get the most out of your new PC

Not sure what apps you should be downloading for your newfangled Windows device? Here are the best Windows apps, whether you need something to speed up your machine or access your Netflix queue. Check out our categories and favorite picks.

5G’s arrival is transforming tech. Here’s everything you need to know to keep up

It has been years in the making, but 5G is finally becoming a reality. While 5G coverage is still extremely limited, expect to see it expand in 2019. Not sure what 5G even is? Here's everything you need to know.

Vanquish lag for good with the best routers for gaming

Finding the best routers for gaming is no easy task. With so many out there, how do you know which to pick? We've looked at the many options available and put together a list of our lag-free favorites.

Beddit Sleep Monitor 3.5 now available on the Apple Store

The Beddit Sleep Monitor 3.5 is now available on the Apple Store for $150. The sensor strip, which is only 2 millimeters thin, automatically tracks a wide array of sleep data when placed under the user's sheets.