What is Apollo Neuro
Apollo Neuro is a wearable device which uses a patented vibration technology to modify and influence your stress and relaxation responses. Apollo Neuro offers a selection of different modes to help you focus, energize, relax, socialize and fall asleep.
Worn on the wrist or ankle, Apollo Neuro delivers a gentle ‘touch therapy’ which you feel as gentle waves of vibration. The vibration frequencies and rhythms have been specifically chosen to stimulate activity in the sympathetic (‘fight-or-flight’) and parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’) nervous systems.
Apollo is designed to get better the more you use it, ‘retraining’ your nervous system to help you manage stress more effectively as time goes on.
Unlike some of the gadgets we review, Apollo Neuro has a pedigree borne out of original research in the science lab. Researchers David Rabin MD, PhD and Greg Siegle PhD at the Program in Cognitive Affective Neuroscience at Pittsburgh University, together discovered that low frequency inaudible sound waves (vibrations you can feel, but can’t hear), could actively change the way we feel.
After five years of research, testing and development in the lab, including a bunch of studies and clinical trials, they decided to form a startup Apollo Neuroscience, to make their technology available to the public. In the video below you can see co-founder and inventor Dr Dave Rabin explaining the theoretical models behind Apollo and its vibration technology back in 2018.
Apollo Neuro Specifications
|Battery life||6-8 hours per full charge|
|Wireless Connectivity||Bluetooth Low Energy BLE 5.0 (airplane mode available)|
|Charging port||Micro USB|
|App compatibility||iOS and Android|
The science of touch
Although the technology is based on actual research, it’s quite easy for the layman to understand the underlying principles. Apollo falls under the broad umbrella term of ‘touch therapy’, which includes all manner of treatments, and therapies including acupuncture, massage, reiki, and many more practices, some of which date back thousands of years.
Touch therapy is not exactly something that gets a lot of brownie points from the peer-reviewed science and medical community (much of it is considered ‘woo-woo’ pseudoscience ), but if you pause for a second, it’s plainly obvious, even to the most die-hard sceptic that humans are instinctively wired to respond positively to touch. Even if you forget the neuroscience, just think about all the ways ‘touch’ is inseparable from normative human social interaction as a means of modulating our moods and emotions, such as:
- the relaxing effects of a massage
- a mother cradling a crying baby
- the calming sensation of petting a dog or cat
- hugging and embracing in times of joy/grief
- athletes huddling, back-slapping to ‘hype’ themselves before a game
Apollo Neuro is an attempt to recognise this hard-wired human response and employ novel vibration technology to mimic some of the effects of ‘healing’, tactile touch. Recognising the significance of chronic stress as a root cause of many health problems, including insomnia, anxiety-disorders, depression, and chronic pain, the makers place emphasis on two specific topics which Apollo Neuro can address:
- heart rate variability (HRV)
- sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
Heart rate variability
HRV has become a bit of a thing in recent years. Every biohacker worth their Himalayan salt is talking about how HRV is one of the most important metrics of overall physical health around. Simply put, HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. We often think of heart rate as being a solid metronomic, unwavering pulse. Whereas in reality, your heart rate intervals are variable throughout the day and night, responding to different changes in your environment.
For example when we encounter a stressful event, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing should correspondingly increase, to meet whatever ‘threat’ may come your way. 10,000 years ago, this might have been running away from a sabre-tooth tiger. In 2021, well, feel free to take your pick of 21st century anxiety-inducing scenarios….
On the flipside however, when there are no stressors in our environment, your body needs to be able to activate the parasympathetic system, to switch back into ‘chill’ mode to rest, digest and perform all of those numerous maintenance and upkeep tasks that ensure balance and homeostasis.
Often, these two systems are in conflict. Your sympathetic nervous system might be telling you to get excited, but your parasympathetic is telling you to calm down. HRV is an indicator of your body’s ability to manage these conflicting signals. A high HRV is a sign of resilience – an indication that your body can easily adapt from ‘survival mode’, to relax mode, and back again if necessary.
A low HRV may indicate that you have difficulty in switching between these two states, and hence less ability to either tackle stress, and/or reach a state of balance and equilibrium needed to properly recharge, rest and recover.
Apollo aims to improve your HRV by mimicking the frequencies of our heart and lungs during deep breathing. Over time, your body naturally learns to associate and tune into these frequencies, producing the correct response, whether it be for relaxation, focus, energise or sleep.
Autonomic nervous system
The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are a part of the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs all the above mentioned (heart beat, blood pressure, respiratory rate) as well as our hormones, digestion, blood flow, blood sugar, and on, and on.
Good health is dependent on a dynamic relationship between these two branches of the ANS. When we want to sleep, rest, relax and recharge we need to engage the parasympathetic. When we want to respond to a threat, we engage our sympathetic system; heart rate and blood pressure increases, and stress hormones like cortisol are released so we’re ready for action.
One of the problems in modern life is that we’re constantly being sent signals that we need to be alert or ready. This might be as innocuous as a push notification on your phone, or the 24/7 rolling news cycle, but combined with other stressors this can lead to an excess of activity in the sympathetic system which can lead to chronic stress and have real consequences for our long-term health.
Apollo Neuro contains program modes that are designed to both increase and decrease our energy levels, with waves of gentle slow frequencies to activate the parasympathetic system, and faster pulses to energise and prompt the sympathetic nervous system into action.
Unboxing/ First Impressions
My first impressions of Apollo were….. let’s say underwhelming for a $349 wearable – perhaps I expected a little more. The device comes in a pretty non-descript white box with the barest of accessories – a micro-USB lead for charging and a spare (large size) band, should you happen to have particularly large wrists or ankles. There’s also a quick start guide, and that’s about it.
Design and Ergonomics
The first thing that strikes you about Apollo is its size. In an age of sleek and invisible design, Apollo bucks the trend in opting for a large, chunky heft of a beast, reminiscent of a cross between a criminal’s electronic tagging bracelet, and a retro sci-fi prop that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a Star Trek shoot, circa 1964. Style, evidently took a second place to function in the design of Apollo.
Presumably the bulkiness is due to the proprietary vibration technology hidden inside Apollo. And whilst I’m joking around slightly, the oversized dimensions play a role in how, and when you use your device. For me, I felt too self-conscious to be out and about with Apollo on my wrist. It’s too bulky and noticeable in public. And in the summer, when I’m pretty much wearing shorts every day, wearing it round the ankle in public is even more conspicuous.
These points aside, the heft contributes to a solid feel. Build quality is very good, the plastic shell feels strong and not flimsy at all. If I was to drop it from a height I’d feel confident it would survive the fall. The metal logo on top functions as a holder to thread the strap through. A simple, but effective design.
Underneath there’s the Micro-USB charging port. Unfortunately the port is always exposed, a simple plastic retainer could have mitigated any dust or small particles getting in, but hey, for some reason the manufacturers decided not to do this.
There’s no display at all, the only way to interact with Apollo is via the two green buttons on the side. These buttons are multifunctional – press both at the same time and this will pause or restart your chosen program. Pressing the button with the raised dot increases the vibration intensity by 5%, pressing the smooth button decreases it by the same amount.
In between the two buttons there’s a single LED status light. The LED flashes yellow when charging/decreasing the vibration intensity; green when you increase the intensity and blue when it’s ready to pair with Bluetooth. Red means your Apollo needs charging.
Overall the design is a spartan affair. There’s very little to interact with on the device, which is probably fitting for a device you just want to run in the background and forget you’re wearing it.
Setting up the software side is thankfully pretty slick and straightforward. First, connect your device to a USB source and give it a full charge, this should take a max of around 2 hours. Next head over the to Apple or Android app stores to download the app, create a user account with some user details: age, gender, height, weight – although you can opt to not complete these details if you don’t want to share such information.
And that’s about it for the setup, after this you’re ready to go.
Apollo Neuro App
In terms of design, again, the makers have gone for a stripped back set of features and functions with the app. This will please the crowd who just want a plug and play experience, but maybe irk some who like to tweak and experiment.
Apart from the settings menu, there’s really only two other sections of the app to dive into: the programs themselves and a profile page which lists your ‘badges’ – essentially a tally of how many times you’ve used the device – more about this later.
Apollo Neuro modes
As the saying goes, this is where the sausage is made. The app features 7 separate programs covering a range of situations where the device can help to change your mood levels, designed to provide an energising pick me-up, a sense of calm and relaxation, or the ability to filter out distractions.
There are 7 modes and the titles are pretty straight-forwardly descriptive. Here’s a list, including the situations in which to use each mode as recommended by the manufacturer:
- Energy and Wake Up (15 mins) – ‘improve wakefulness and attention, typically use this mode in the morning and whenever you need a burst of energy’
- Social and Open (30 mins) – ‘increase both energy levels and feelings of calm, typically use this mode most often for socializing and networking.’
- Clear and Focussed (30 mins) – ‘cognitive and athletic performance and creative work’
- Rebuild and Recover (15 mins) – ‘improved recovery from physical strain due to exercise, mental or emotional stress’
- Meditation and Mindfulness (30 mins) – ‘ ease into and reach deeper meditation states more easily, alsofor relief from persistent soreness and tension’
- Relax and Unwind (30 mins) – ‘increasing parasympathetic activity, use this mode to unwind or before sleep’
- Sleep and Renew (60 mins) – ‘help users fall asleep more easily, particularly after busy days, travel, and times of stress.’
As long as you have your Bluetooth switched on and your Apollo has some charge it’s just a case of selecting your chosen mode, and then after a few seconds you’ll be presented with the mode screen where you have a few options to play with. These are: a play/pause button, a favourite button, and a mode intensity slider.
The first two are self-explanatory but the intensity slider deserves more attention. According to the company website, the advice here is to ‘start low and go slow‘. Ie you should start your mode on a lower intensity, around 20-40% (or 40-80% for the Sleep program) and increase it until you find the vibrations are gentle, but not distracting.
Although you might be tempted to crank up the intensity to 100%, apparently, this does not increase more effectiveness. Also, bear in mind that using Apollo at max strength will rapidly kill the battery, shortening the battery life considerably beyond the estimated 6 hours between charges. Once the program is over, your Apollo just goes into standby.
Other app functions and settings
The Apollo app also has a built-in motivational/tracking function that takes note of all of your sessions and awards you with ‘Badges’ for completing things like 100/250/500 minutes use, and 5-day consecutive usage.
These reward systems sometimes referred to as ‘gamification’ are commonplace in all types of apps these days – as a means to encourage continued interaction. Apollo is designed to work better the more you use it, so the idea behind Badges is as a kind of motivational tool to keep you in the game, so you will hopefully benefit from the long term benefits of lowering your HRV and better management of your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
There’s a few other settings you can change, for instance there’s an option to enable airplane mode for those who have concerns about EMFs – although obviously this means your device will lose Bluetooth connectivity with the app and you’ll have to enable it again to change programs. There are also options to do a firmware upgrade, factory reset with the app, but that’s about it for functionality.
Summary and gripes about the app
Overall I found the app to be perfectly usable, but a bit of a bare bones affair. Although the app takes a few seconds to connect, it works reliably and it’s nice that you don’t have to actively pair anything, the Apollo is just found automatically.
The layout is clear and the controls are easy to use, but I can’t help but get the impression that in getting the product to market, the company have weighted their efforts towards getting the actual hardware to perform the best it could. And that the software, if not exactly an afterthought, was of less importance to get to a high standard.
For instance, some key features are missing, which, in my very limited understanding of coding, wouldn’t seem too hard to achieve – like a scheduling function to play your favourite mode at a set time of day, or the ability to play two modes back to back (ie Relax and Unwind, followed by Sleep and Renew) to help you make the most of Apollo’s sleep promoting abilities.
Also, some features are in my mind totally redundant – like the addition of a Like/Favourite button when there’s only 7 things to choose from, or the totally uninspiring attempt at gamification that is the Badges section, whose bland geometric shapes don’t really have the intended purpose of either rewarding, entertaining or motivating.
But I guess I’m bitching a little, none of these points affect how the actual hardware works, and this is where the real stuff happens……
OK, so first things first. Like another device we recently tested (check our NeoRhythm review here) Apollo Neuro falls into the category of products where psychological biases like the placebo effect, and the sunk-cost fallacy can potentially loom large.
This may or may not bear any relevance on whether these devices actually work, actually achieve their goals – but my point is that with the new generation of ‘moodables’ like Apollo, there are no real objective ways to measure efficacy, apart from how you ‘feel’ after using the device.
So, the reason I’m prefacing my experience with Apollo like this is to tell you that my findings are purely subjective, and I have no hard evidence to back up my findings, other than my own ‘feelings’ and experiences. Fortunately this is what scientific experiments, clinical trials are for – to produce objective, non-biased findings. And Apollo, coming from a research background already has completed several clinical trials, and has a sleep study currently underway.
So, let’s begin with the ergonomics. In this respect, top marks to the makers. Apollo Neuro is super easy to get started with, once you’ve installed the app you can get going straight away. The device is very comfortable, pleasurable to wear, no complaints at all in this area, apart from maybe the size, which precludes wearing it on your wrist at social events – unless you want to be constantly fielding enquiries about your oversized wearable.
Waves of touch
In terms of the actual sensation of using Apollo, the effect is rather nice… The vibrations are due to a partnership with Lofelt, one of the biggest names in state of the art haptic technology It’s clear that Apollo Neuroscience have created a range of vibration-based sensory experiences that really do feel distinct from each other.
The vibrations are best described as ‘waves’. The pulses are not constant or robotic – like you would experience when your phone is ringing – instead Apollo modes play out more in the way someone would give a massage, constantly varying the speed and intensity of touch.
At first when I got the device, typically, without reading the instructions, I immediately cranked the intensity level up to 100% because…. well, I just assumed that more would equal better. But I soon realised that this wasn’t the smart thing to do. Because although the vibrations are most noticeable at 100%, at this strength they’re way too distracting. So eventually I ended up doing what the instructions said, and bring the intensity down to a level that was just perceivable – usually around 20-30%.
What’s quite striking, and quite clever too, is the way even though Apollo is just a hunk of metal, plastic and rare earth minerals, the device is capable of producing quite a range of different tactile responses that genuinely feel quite different and distinct from each other. And like a musical composition, Apollo’s modes aren’t static, they change in pace, rhythm and intensity throughout their duration.
So, to continue the musical metaphor, the Energy and Wake Up mode starts off with long 3-5 seconds pulses, like a slow, but deep and intense bass line. After a minute or two the ‘bass drum’ kicks in, steady 1 second pulses, later on the speed doubles, like the ticking of a hi-hat cymbal. The idea I guess is that this dynamic interplay creates a stimulating, energising, slightly unpredictable sensation that sends a signal to your fight or flight response to pay heed, and get ready for action!
In contrast, the Sleep and Renew mode, has a markedly different feel and emotion. The most gentle of all the 7 modes, Sleep is characterised by long, but subtle low frequency waves. Unlike the energy program, there’s no discernable tempo, it’s more like a sensation of breathing, or maybe a cat purring. The effect is extremely soothing, and although it sounds odd, I imagine these vibrations, if scaled up to a million times their intensity as being similar to the seismic vibrations of an earthquake.
Clear and Focussed is characterised by waves again, but seemingly high frequency ones. Social and Open feels similar in this way. Generally speaking, the programs designed more for activity, generally feel more ‘peppy’, punctuated – whilst the relax, meditate and sleep programs are more subtle, less ‘noticeable’ and more wave-like.
Apollo Neuro – did it help me sleep?
Perhaps my favourite program is the Relax and Unwind mode, and arguably this is the only one I have some semi-objective data on, rather than just my feelings and impressions. Now, I often quip I’m the worst person ever to actually be reviewing sleep products….. because I don’t really have any chronic sleep problems, I’m not an insomniac… but I do occasionally have some nights where daytime anxieties end up spilling into my falling-asleep window, resulting in rumination, and unnecessary chewing the cud which prevents me from falling asleep straight away.
So, a couple of times in the past week this happened so I thought I would try to see if Apollo Neuro could move the needle in any way. And, as I often wear a Fitbit in bed, I was able to look at my heart rate in real time, both before, and after having started the Apollo Relax mode.
Both times, before I finally drifted off, I noticed a marked change as I glanced at my Fitbit heart rate metrics. What I surmised was happening is that Apollo was making me subconsciously alter my breathing rate, which in turn ‘switched off’ some of my sympathetic nervous system activity and started to trigger my rest and digest response.
Now, of course I have no definitive proof apart from what I observed as written above, but if I was asked to testify in court of law, I would say, with all transparency that I think Apollo genuinely enabled me to navigate to a place in my mind where I was able to sufficiently relax, stop running thoughts through my head, and fall asleep more easily. That’s my testimony, Mr Judge, take it or leave it!
With regards to the actual Sleep and Renew program I did try it out as well. But as I’ve mentioned above, my sleep is rarely that problematic. So the times I used Apollo’s Sleep mode, I didn’t really have any baseline to say if I sleep ‘better’ or worse. But the soothing effect of the Apollo certainly didn’t in any way detract from my sleep. Sadly, that’s all I can say about the Sleep mode. I look forward to the results of the upcoming sleep study by Apollo Neuroscience, and I’ll publish the results in an updated review.
So bringing all my thoughts together on this, what’s my overall take on Apollo Neuro? Well, let’s get the gripes out the way first, and there’s a few.
First, it’s really big… I wish it were smaller. Especially as it has a mode for socialising, and where I live it’s generally hot – shorts and t-shirt weather – I never felt comfortable going out and wearing Apollo in public. Unlike a modern day FitBit or something similar, Apollo is just too conspicuous for me to wear outside. So in the house it stays, for now.
Secondly, the app is slightly disappointing. Not in the sense that it’s flakey, buggy or doesn’t work. It just doesn’t do that much. And it feels like there’s a lot of potential for improvements with software features like scheduling, notifications, maybe even integrations with other health platforms to proactively prompt you to initiate an Apollo program.
Then there’s the price. $349 is a big shell out, so even if Apollo sweeps the floor in all its upcoming clinical trials and the technology is proven to be wildly effective in placebo-controlled experiments, it’s still going to be inaccessible to most people at this price point.
On a more positive note, and as a general comment…….. I really liked the device! It’s quirky, and it doesn’t do a lot on the face of it. But delving into the deep rabbit of the neurophysiology of touch, the complex interactions of stress, heart rate variability (HRV), and the autonomic nervous system, I started to understand both instinctively and rationally, how and why a device like Apollo could have real working applications for our wellbeing.
Because just like a relaxing massage, or an embrace from a loved one can produce feelings of calm, serenity, joy or peace, there’s an ever growing body of scientific evidence to say sensory stimuli such as Apollo’s vibration technology can have similar effects in modulating the autonomic nervous system – not just helping us to regulate our stress and anxiety levels, but even providing an energy boost when we need it.
In my personal experience with Apollo, the hardest thing is the challenge in separating potential placebo factors from any direct positive effects of the device. Although I was never able to make a scientifically based opinion of my own, I would say that Apollo helped my to fall asleep easier on more than one occasion by somehow turning a bunch of vibrations on my ankle into a subconscious cue to slow my breathing, which had the net effect of reducing the amount of sleep-preventing thoughts ruminating, enabling me to nod off sooner than I would have done without Apollo.
Apollo Neuro is novel concept, hard to explain in detail, but at the same time, instinctively comprehendible – a paradox indeed. However, the sensation of touch on your skin bypasses cognition, you don’t need to intellectualise what’s going on, just as you don’t need to analyse the neurochemistry of why a hug feels so great.
In a world where human touch has been sent to the margins out of fear of a seemingly never-ending pandemic, Apollo Neuro seems like the uber-wearable of our times. I’m not celebrating the fact that there’s a piece of technology that may act as a proxy for hugs, embrace loving touch. But I’m very grateful that it exists and the hope that some people who might not otherwise find a solution to their anxieties, relaxation or sleep problems, may find solace in this curious, innovative wearable.Exclusive: Get 10% off Apollo NeuroUSE