Retooling brain health care with pervasive, inexpensive, data-driven digital technologies


While sophis­ti­cat­ed neu­roimag­ing tech­niques such as fMRI (func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing) pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant boost in our under­stand­ing of the brain — and research stud­ies con­stant­ly report­ed all over the media — they are very cost­ly. This makes it dif­fi­cult to reach the mass scale required to con­duct mean­ing­ful research and to improve the brain health care of mil­lions if not bil­lions of peo­ple around the globe.

Good news is, we are wit­ness­ing an explo­sion of new meth­ods that make use of low cost, ubiq­ui­tous tech­nolo­gies to inform brain health pre­ven­tion, diag­noses and treat­ments on a wide scale.

Max Little’s five-minute TEDTalk A Test For Parkinson’s With A Phone Call pro­vides a great exam­ple. Assum­ing the 10,000-subject exper­i­ment run by the Parkinson’s Voice Ini­tia­tive is suc­cess­ful, we will soon have a new dis­ease mea­sure that is both accu­rate and acces­si­ble. The brain may be an amaz­ing­ly com­plex organ, but with the right tools and some inge­nu­ity, we can build on that com­plex­i­ty to find new ways to improve brain health across the full lifespan.

Parkinson’s, as Lit­tle points out, afflicts over 6 mil­lion indi­vid­ual world­wide, but it’s just one of a num­ber of neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions that togeth­er take a ter­ri­ble col­lec­tive toll. Think about ADHD, con­cus­sions, depres­sion, Alzheimer’s Dis­ease, and more. Improv­ing pre­ven­tion and care for all these con­di­tions faces one com­mon obsta­cle: the lack of scal­able assess­ments that can help objec­tive­ly assess and mon­i­tor the con­tin­u­um between health and dis­ease. With­out them, we need to rely exclu­sive­ly on very expen­sive med­ical equip­ment and clin­i­cal eval­u­a­tions, which means too few peo­ple, and too late, access them.

So what are some alter­na­tives? Little’s exper­i­ment is based on the phone. Oth­ers are research­ing blood tests. A surge of inno­va­tion is already tak­ing place in Inter­net-enabled dig­i­tal plat­forms designed to mon­i­tor and enhance cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al func­tion­ing. For exam­ple, in this mar­ket report we pre­dict­ed that, in just a few years…

  • More than one mil­lion adults in North Amer­i­ca alone will take a self-admin­is­tered annu­al brain health check-up via their iPad or Android tablet.
  • iPad-based cog­ni­tive screen­ings will inform more diag­noses of Alzheimer’s dis­ease and MCI than neuroimaging.
  • More than one mil­lion ama­teur ath­letes will bet­ter man­age pos­si­ble con­cus­sions by tak­ing cog­ni­tive base­line tests via a mobile device.
  • Bio­met­rics-aid­ed med­i­ta­tion will become the next big thing in cor­po­rate and con­sumer wellness.
  • More than 150,000 teenage and adult AAA mem­bers will access web-based brain train­ing to become safer drivers.

These tools are espe­cial­ly pow­er­ful when used, as we also saw in Little’s talk, in com­bi­na­tion with large datasets that pro­vide researchers and devel­op­ers with an unprece­dent­ed amount of infor­ma­tion used to hone their diag­nos­tic and pre­dic­tive abil­i­ties. Over the course of this decade, we will like­ly see Big Data appli­ca­tions that will enable tru­ly per­son­al­ized brain health solu­tions, based on an individual’s brain char­ac­ter­is­tics and pro­gres­sion over time. If we are to meet a mas­sive and grow­ing need, we’ll need to dis­rupt today’s sta­tus quo in which research is based on small and frag­ment­ed clin­i­cal tri­als, and where active brain care is often left for patients whose prob­lems have grown until it is too dif­fi­cult to man­age them.

Now, tech­nolo­gies bring no val­ue with­out actu­al users.

What is tru­ly excit­ing is the con­flu­ence of fac­tors mak­ing brain health and fit­ness a pri­or­i­ty for the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. Eighty three per­cent of respon­dents to a Sharp­Brains sur­vey of 3,000+ deci­sion-mak­ers and ear­ly adopters said that “adults of all ages should take care of their ‘brain fit­ness,’ with­out wait­ing for their doc­tors to tell them to” and also that they “would per­son­al­ly take a brief assess­ment every year as an ‘annu­al men­tal check-up.” At the same time as the idea of brain fit­ness starts to go main­stream (con­trast where phys­i­cal fit­ness was fifty years ago with where it is now), equip­ment that used to be expen­sive and cum­ber­some is becom­ing user-friend­ly and inexpensive.

2016 SharpBrains Virtual Summit: Reinventing Brain HealthWhile brain health inno­va­tion still has a ways to go before reach­ing the lev­el of devel­op­ment as phys­i­cal fit­ness and car­dio­vas­cu­lar health, it is hun­dreds of pio­neers like Max Lit­tle who are push­ing things for­ward at an ever quick­en­ing pace and often under the radar. What seems uncon­ven­tion­al today may well look con­ven­tion­al by as near as 2020.


–> Learn more & Reg­is­ter to par­tic­i­pate at the 2016 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit: Rein­vent­ing Brain Health (Decem­ber 6–8th, 2016)

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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