Alum’s Nervana earbuds use nerve stimulation for blissful listening; debut to rave reviews

Gregory Mayback (BE'86) demonstrated his Nervana device and spoke to engineering management classes in April. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

It only takes a few seconds to understand Nervana is not your regular earbuds.

You feel the slightest tingling in your ear as tiny jolts of electricity, synchronized with the beat of “Another One Bites the Dust” or “Back in Black” or “Sweet Emotion,” connect with nerve endings. A few songs in, and you experience a noticeable feeling of well-being. Perhaps your shoulders relax. Your eyes close.

Sound nuts? It’s OK – Vanderbilt alumnus Gregory Mayback hears that a lot. And he and his partners are preparing to make more Nervana converts.

Their Indiegogo campaign yielded well over a half-million dollars in funding – about eight times what they requested – and reporters from more than 20 news outlets covered the device after its debut at January’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Mayback (BE’86) was in Nashville this month to attend the School of Engineering’s Alumni Celebration Dinner, speak to engineering management classes and meet with record company executives. (He declined to reveal which ones.) He’s also preparing to distribute the device to crowdfunding participants and start the world using his alternative spelling for a state of bliss.

“I knew we had to find a name that hits people in the gut,’” Mayback said. “We had to ask, what are we trying to do with this device? What place do our customers want to go to? Nirvana. That was it.”

Finding the name

The unusual spelling is a nod to how the headphones work. They’re attached to a box connected to the user’s smartphone. As the user plays music — preferably something with a pronounced, steady beat to encourage and disguise the electrical impulses — the device stimulates the vagus nerve.

The longest of the cranial nerves, the vagus extends from the brain’s pleasure center to the heart, esophagus, lungs and other organs. There’s a decades-long history of using electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve to treat epilepsy and depression.

Mayback and his co-founders – brothers Richard and Daniel Cartledge, a cardiac surgeon and a pain management physician, respectively, and Ami Brannon, a nursing administrator – initially are selling Nervana as a lifestyle device. That means no need for clinical trials and FDA approval, which could come later, Mayback said.

The company is based in Boca Raton, Florida.

Mayback studied electrical engineering at Vanderbilt, then worked for three years on the Star Wars missile defense shield for various contractors before attending law school at the University of Miami. After that, he worked for a federal judge for two years and then began practicing law.

After working as a patent attorney, he joined a law firm handling a number of construction litigation cases.

“It was all about the failure of materials,” Mayback said. “I interviewed all the creators of those materials. To know what’s in the mind of an engineer who created something with a defect was invaluable. You know the questions to ask when they give you an answer that may be evasive or they try to out-technical you.”

‘Headphones that get you high’

Two years ago, the Cartledge brothers came to him with an idea to stimulate the vagus nerve for stress relief and pain management.

“We had to figure out where to deliver the electricity and, because it’s going to be tingly, had to make it where people weren’t going to be immediately dissuaded because it’s a feeling nobody has experienced before,” Mayback said. “They had to enjoy it quickly. How do you do that? Mix it with music.”

The delivery is in the left ear canal, and the Nervana earbuds must have a perfect fit to both deliver the charge properly and allow users to feel the music inside their heads. That’s why they’re offered in several sizes.

The device debuted to positive reviews, including one from a USA Today writer who said “the resulting calm and focus that washed over me was profound.” All the physicians who tested Nervana on “The Doctors” — in a segment titled “Headphones that get you high?” — said they enjoyed it, and only one crew member said he couldn’t feel it.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering