Boca Raton firm’s device delivers happiness through headphones

Start-up firm Nervana hopes to deliver happiness through headphones.

The Boca Raton-based company made a splash last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where its device was named the top new offering in the digital health niche.

Nervana’s product, created by two Palm Beach County doctors, is a $299 portable device that uses ear buds to send an electronic signal to the vagus nerve, which passes near the ear and carries messages to every major organ. Nervana says its signals spur the brain to produce dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that boosts mood.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved stimulation of the vagus (sounds like Vegas) nerve as a treatment for depression, epilepsy and weight loss, and proponents say the nerve can be prompted to fight inflammation, asthma, depression and other disorders.

Nervana makes no medical claims, at least not yet. Creators Dr. Richard Cartledge, a Boca Raton heart surgeon, and his brother, Dr. Daniel Cartledge, a pain management specialist in Delray Beach, are marketing the device to people who simply want to feel better.

That means Nervana’s product needs no regulatory approval. The Cartledges hope to begin selling the device online in the next few months.

Richard Cartledge said that when he uses the Nervana unit, he feels a gentle upswing in his mood.

“It makes me feel a warm and fuzzy sensation in my chest, tingling on the backs of my arms, and a general bump in my mood,” Richard Cartledge said. “You feel a sense of well-being. It’s not an intense, profound sensation, but it’s like something that would normally make you happy just happened, like you saw an old friend, or you opened a birthday gift.”

How long his happiness lasts depends on how long he stimulates his vagus nerve. An hourlong session is typically followed by 30 to 45 minutes of good feelings.

Journalist Amanda Gutterman tried the unit in Las Vegas and experienced “powerful sensations.”

“The effect was so intense it felt beyond doubt that it was caused by the device,” Gutterman wrote on

The device is designed to work with music, Cartledge said. It can be plugged into a smartphone or iPad, and its microphone can pick up sound at a concert or club.

For now, Nervana has only three employees, but Cartledge expects that number to grow as the company begins assembling and shipping its devices.

Cartledge wouldn’t say how much he has invested to launch Nervana, but he said he has taken on no outside money yet.

If the Nervana units are a hit, Cartledge hopes to use the proceeds to fund research into medical uses for his device. Patients who need vagus nerve stimulation get it through implants that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

British medical device maker LivaNova has sold 90,000 vagus nerve stimulators for patients with severe epilepsy. The device, which is placed in the chest, costs about $30,000, plus surgical fees, said Daniel Powell, the company’s director of global marketing.

After getting the implants, epilepsy patients report fewer and less severe seizures — along with improved mood, memory and focus, Powell said. The only reported side effect is hoarseness while the stimulator is sending electrical signals.

As for Nervana, Cartledge said his goal is to treat diseases without surgical implants.

“We are at the tip of the iceberg in understanding bioelectronics,” Cartledge said. “There’s a lot to learn about the science.”

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