What Is Kortex?
Using a type of neurostimulation called transcranial electrical stimulation, Kortex is a wearable device that promises to deliver effective stress and sleep management in the privacy of your own home, without a prescription. How’s it work?
According to their website, you’ll just need to moisten the sponge electrodes and clip them to the headband, clip the base unit to the back of the headband, connect the wires, and turn Kortex on.
When used once or twice per day for 20 minutes, the proprietary technology behind Kortex has been shown in multiple published studies to stimulate the brain to produce serotonin and melatonin, both of which play an important role in sleep. It’s also been shown to lower cortisol (known as the stress hormone) levels.
With its headband-based design, Kortex can deliver these results on its own, or it can add a virtual reality component by easily attaching to most VR headsets, (except for the Sony Playstation VR). This includes the Samsung Gear VR, the Google Daydream, and the ZEISS VR ONE Plus.
A convenient, private, and clinically substantiated method of reducing stress and managing sleep? Is there a catch with Kortex, or can you really expect it to work as well as Fisher Wallace Labs claims?
In this article, we'll walk you through some of the important factors we learned during our research. By the end, you should have a much clearer picture of what you might realistically expect.
How Does Neurostimulation Work?
There’s no need to go into excessive detail here. But at its most basic, neurostimulation is “a method of therapy that uses electrical stimulation to cause changes in the nervous system.”
Depending on a patient’s requirements, this can be accomplished through invasive surgery, where an implantable device is attached to microelectrodes, which then deliver an electrical current.
Or, noninvasive means can be used, such as the Fisher Wallace Stimulator. This FDA-cleared device uses a specific type of neurostimulation called transcranial electrical stimulation, or tES, to deliver “patented waveforms [that] gently stimulate the brain to produce serotonin and other neurochemicals responsible for healthy mood and sleep.”
Basically, as it passes through the brain, a weak, alternating electrical current increases neuronal excitability and allows for more spontaneous cell firing. In turn, this can help brain cells (neurons) transmit electrical signals better.
While the National Institutes of Health notes that tES technology is at an early stage of development, there exists solid evidence that, if used regularly, it may have a meaningful impact on depression.
Now, how does this compare to Kortex?
Kortex vs. the Fisher Wallace Stimulator
Functionally, Kortex and its predecessor, the Fisher Wallace Stimulator (FWS), work the same.
They both feature a central pack powered by two AA batteries, which will typically last for six months of daily usage. This delivers electrical stimulation via two sponge electrodes (moistened with tap water) that are attached via two short leads.
While both devices promise to comfortably stimulate the brain to produce serotonin, endorphins, and melatonin, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol, the Fisher Wallace Stimulator is a device that’s been FDA cleared since 1990 to treat medical conditions like depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Comparatively, Kortex delivers half the maximum dosage (2mA) of FWS, which the company tells us can help you manage stress and sleep, but without the need for a prescription.
Design-wise, Kortex has a much more consumer-friendly appearance, with a sleek black design, while the Fisher Wallace Stimulator definitely takes a more ‘clinical’ design approach.
Kortex also features the ability to attach to some VR headsets, giving you the option to engage in virtual reality experiences. According to the company’s Indiegogo campaign, they’re also “working with multiple content partners to provide additional experiences for the Kortex VR platform,” along with a mobile app that will “curate content and offer services that support a wide variety of healthcare goals.”
Like the FWS, Kortex can be used without a VR headset, allowing you to sit, meditate, read a book, watch TV, and so forth during your 20-minute sessions.
Compared to the Fisher Wallace Stimulator (left), Kortex features half the maximum dosage, a more consumer-friendly design, and the ability to connect to many popular virtual reality headsets.
However, there’s no mention on the Kortex website if its treatment levels are adjustable, as they are with the Fisher Wallace Stimulator.
We reached out to the company for additional details about this, as well as for their VR content and app information, and we’ll be sure to update this article as soon as a response is received.
Our Interview With the Company Behind Kortex
We received a quick reply from Fisher Wallace Labs cofounder Kelly Roman and here’s what we learned:
Can you tell me more about the app? What kind of content will it curate? What healthcare goals will it help support, and how?
Kelly informed us that Kortex works equally as well with or without the app, so the company decided to initially release it as a manual version in order to ensure the app is top notch before being downloaded by customers. He expected a likely release by the end of 2017 or early 2018.
However, he emphasized that Kortex will feature Bluetooth capability upon release, so it will integrate as soon as the app is made available.
In the meantime, Kortex will feature a dial that can turn it on and can adjust the electrical output (max 2 mA), which will automatically turn off after 20 minutes.
According to Kelly, the app will be “designed to improve patient engagement, motivation, compliance, and other key factors.” He added that “the VR version of the app will curate virtual reality content for each 20-minute neurostimulation session, such as the Land's End game, Relax VR, and other content we choose to include.”
The company also plans to make ancillary content available, such as diabetes prevention, substance abuse recovery, and PTSD treatment-related content.
Why integrate the VR experience? Do you have any clinical data showing that virtual reality can enhance Kortex's benefits?
While not specifically marketed as such, Kelly informed us that there is a lot of research indicating that “virtual reality therapy can be effective for treating the same populations as the Fisher Wallace Stimulator; primarily substance abuse, PTSD, and anxiety patients.”
He added, “Combining our technology should improve the outcome of VR therapy for these patients, and that will require some study.” However, he noted that they can leverage the research already available for the Fisher Wallace Stimulator and VR content separately.
“We believe the whole will be greater than the parts,” Kelly emphasized. “Our technology has been shown to greatly increase treatment retention in a 392-subject study performed at Phoenix House drug rehab center in 2009, so we believe that our tech is relevantly paired with many types of treatment programs, which can leverage VR content.”
On the consumer (non-medical) front, Kelly noted that the company believes VR content will improve patient compliance / consistency and relaxation during neurostimulation. “There is published research that shows visual exposure to natural environments - such as waterfalls and jungle scenery - relaxes subjects as measured by heart rate and cortisol levels,” he told us.
What does the future hold for Kortex?
Kelly concluded that the Fisher Wallace eventually wants to build sensors into Kortex that measure the brain's Alpha Wave output in response to the stimulation, and adjust the stimulation variables accordingly to customize it to each consumer's brain.
Outside of the study cofounder Kelly Roman mentioned, is there any other clinical evidence related to Kortex?
Is Kortex Clinically Proven to Reduce Stress & Improve Sleep Management?
Each of the 12 studies linked to on the Kortex website was conducted using the Fisher Wallace Stimulator. However, the website indicates that “Every study conducted using the Fisher Wallace Stimulator limited stimulation dosage to 2mA or less, the same dosage as Kortex.”
With this in mind, these studies individually showed:
- Improvements in gait and balance recovery for those with Parkinson’s
- Significantly decreased anxiety and comorbid depression
- Improvements in anxiety and depression in alcoholic patients, those with Bipolar II depression, and those undergoing drug treatment
When combined with meditation, many patients also reported improved relaxation and sleep, less stress, and improved concentration and focus.
Based on their scientific, clinical, and market data, the company tells us that Kortex has been shown to be effective for about 90% of daily users. It’s important that the device is consistently used on a daily basis for the first 30 days, after which maintenance sessions of 3-4 times per week are needed.
What About Potential Kortex Side Effects?
In most instances, Kortex users won’t feel the stimulation, although some may experience a mild tingling at the sponge electrode sites. There are no known long-term negative effects (remember, Kortex uses the same technology as the Fisher Wallace Stimulator, which has been in use for 10 years).
Less than one percent of Kortex users have reported a temporary headache, dizziness, or skin irritation. It can be used safely in conjunction with any medication.
The company tells us that all non-invasive brain stimulation devices (not just Kortex) shouldn’t be used by those “who have medical devices implanted in their head or neck, such as vagus nerve stimulators or deep brain stimulators (such devices may be interfered with by external electrical stimulation).”
How Much Does Kortex Cost?
At the time of our research, there were three Indiegogo perk options available for Kortex, with an estimated delivery date of July 2017:
- Kortex Complete Kit: $349 – Includes one Complete Kit and one copy of the Land’s End VR game
- Kortex Samsung Gear VR: $449 – Everything found in the Complete Kit, with the addition of a Samsung Gear VR headset
- Kortex ZEISS VR ONE Plus: $459 – Everything found in the Complete Kit, with the addition of a Kortex ZEISS VR ONE Plus headset
Each Kortex Complete Kit includes the base unit, two electrode clips, two electrode sponge caps, a three-month supply of electrode sponges, wires, and a headband. Additional sponges will be available “at a reasonable price” and also through an autoship option.
While every Kortex device will be covered by a 1-year limited manufacturer’s warranty for parts and labor, Indiegogo only offers refunds on perks if requested within 10 days (as long as the campaign is still active).
Since Kortex hadn’t been released at the time of our research, was there any online feedback?
What Can We Learn About Kortex From Reviews?
Although Fisher Wallace Labs based out of NYC has been in business for 10 years, Kortex launched via a March 2017 Indiegogo campaign, where it raised more than $115,000 from 377 backers.
We found quick write-ups in Engadget and Men’s Health, although these were little more than quick overviews, with no hands-on testing.
As a company, Fisher Wallace Labs held an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau and 17 closed complaints as of 3/28/17. Most of these referenced refund issues, although a representative responded to each complaint in order to help find a resolution.
One more thing before we wrap up: Kortex’s competition.
Are There Other Transcranial Electrical Stimulation Devices Like Kortex?
If you enter “transcranial electrical stimulation” into your favorite search engine, you’ll find there are, indeed, other devices like Kortex, including The Mind Enhancer v2.5, The Brain Stimulator v3.0, and several devices that go by the unassuming name “Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation.”
Outside of The Brain Stimulator, though, you’ll quickly realize that most of these devices come from independent sellers through sites like Etsy and eBay. You’ll certainly want to speak with your doctor before starting any TES therapy, so we’d recommend inquiring about these third-party devices before placing an order.
Like Kortex, The Brain Stimulator features two sponge electrodes that fit under a headband, a session timer, along with a central unit that powers the electrodes at 2mA.
However, it’s powered by a 9-volt battery (versus two AA batteries), features four selectable current options, and also implements safety features like over-current and over-voltage protection.
From a price perspective, The 3.0 comes in at $160, while Kortex comes in at more than twice the price. For the money, though, you’ll get a much sleeker design that can be implemented into several popular VR headsets.
We had the opportunity to ask cofounder Kelly Roman about The Brain Stimulator, which he emphasized “uses very different technology” and comes “with no safety or effectiveness data.” So, as is often the case with electronics, you might get what you pay for.
Still, is Kortex worth the price? Let’s carry this thought over to the final section as we wrap things up.
The Bottom Line About Kortex
While there are plenty of devices that promise to help provide more insight into your sleep (and consequently sleep better), such as Resmed S+, Sense Smart Alarm, and Oura Ring, there aren’t a whole lot of options for in-home transcranial electrical stimulation devices.
In fact, we only found one—The Brain Stimulator v3.0—available from an actual company, compared to the third-party creations sold on Ebay and Etsy.
And yes, while The Brain Stimulator v3.0 does come with a much lower price, Kortex is also backed by a technology company who’s been in business 10 years and has an FDA-cleared medical device to their name. And it’s this technology upon which Kortex is based.
While these are some big positives, not only will you be making a larger financial commitment with Kortex, but you also won’t be able to request a refund through Indiegogo, since the campaign has officially ended.
We also think it’s positive that Fisher Wallace cofounder Kelly Roman replied quickly to our request for additional information, with detailed answers that provided a lot of insight into their product and their future plans. In our mind, this speaks volumes about what customers might expect once Kortex is released to the public.
2 out 5 people found this review helpful
Don't buy this ungainly machine
I purchased it on the crowdfunding site. I purchased two units, which came a year later. It is ungainly and ill-conceived. Don't bother with it. Buy Alpha-Stim instead. They will not refund it even though I took one look at the messy system and didn't even open it. Just a new way to make money on an old, and somewhat questionable, device.
Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend
1 out 1 people found this review helpful
Extremely disappointed with the entire process!
There was a long wait that was pumped up by Mr. Roman. Promise after promise, and people who invested in the Kortex waited for months after the "launch" date. When I questioned Mr. Roman about the delay and told him it could appear they were hyping their product promising a delivery date that never came, he became irate (like I caught his hand in the cookie jar). There was no talking to him, and he promptly offered a refund- the most unprofessional exchange I had ever had with a businessman. I can tell you my experience with Chip was 100% different.
They advertised the device with a VR, and when you open the package, it's clear that's not the case. Why didn't they advertise the device as it is? Most if not all of their advertising illustrates this, and I'm sure in the fine print if there is a note about whats not included, but I didn't think I had to look for that. They don't advertise the Fisher device with headphones and an MP3 player, but that how it can be used.
I have to question the efficacy of their studies. One of their studies was conducted in a residential treatment center, and at one point when some of the non-study clients saw what was happening with the study participants they joined in. People in treatment do not offer the best-controlled study participant. The power of suggestions is significant when clients can sit around and talk about the great experience they had, especially with the group that was not receiving care. How do you know the care they were receiving in treatment accounted for the improvement?
A legitimate study will use a control group NOT influenced by other factors. For example, the study should have been between people at home who are best matched and not using the device, and people at home who are best matched that do use the device. Each person would have received the same instructions and have been monitored the same. Research 101.
Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend
I purchased this device on Indiegogo crowdfunding for a steep discount and could not be happier with the device. After the first week of daily use, I definitely slept better (stopped waking up suddenly at 3 AM) and felt more calm during the day, and the results have lasted into week 4 so far. The device came with the Land's End game, which I played for 2 weeks, and now am using the Relax VR app. I highly recommend it!
Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend
The future of healthcare
I placed a preorder for Kortex back in September after reading about it on Engadget.com. I'm currently a junior in college so dealing with stress is normal. On some nights, I end up working late to finish problem sets and getting to bed afterward is never easy. I have always been against taking sleep pills, so Kortex peaked my interest when I saw it. I read a few articles on IGN.com about VR being used for mental health, and to me, Kortex seemed like it went one step further by actually being a device that already worked for mental health. According to the Indiegogo campaign, the virtual reality experience would amplify the effectiveness of Kortex.
Now I will admit that I was a little bummed with the shipping delay (October was the original estimate; I received my order in December). However, the customer service was great. Whenever I emailed in asking for order updates, I would receive them with a couple days. When I finally received Kortex, I connected it to the Samsung VR and started Land's End.
I was having such a fun time playing the game that before I knew it, the 20 minutes were up and Kortex turned off. I used Kortex one more time that first day at night, except this time without using the Samsung VR headset. To my surprise, when I laid down to rest, I fell asleep within minutes! I slept about 8-9 hours that night and felt great the next morning when I woke up. I am so happy that I received Kortex when I did because it was finals season and the device helped me feel much more relaxed and focused then I would have normally been.
I would absolutely recommend Kortex to any other college student or person dealing with stress and/or sleep deprivation. It works great, and I look forward to trying other VR apps with the device.
Thank you Fisher Wallace.
Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend
Could have tried a little harder.
I was part of the crowdfunding for the Kortex device. I was pleased that the voltage is identical to the Fisher Wallace BS. I have only been using it less than one week, so the jury is still out. However, I felt compelled to write this review for the following reasons...
The device looks and feels cheaply made. The power switch, which turns on/off and controls the level of stimulation, is very difficult to use. It's not clear by feeling it whether it's working. If it wasn't for a little 'click' when it goes on or off, I'd be hard-pressed to tell what was happening. The only way I know it's working is if there is a slight visual tremor (not at all uncomfortable).
Finally, since this is a pilot project, one would think I would have been contacted about my feedback. I hope it helps my sleep, but I'm left feeling like they could have tried a little harder given the price.
Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend