Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Survey of key scientific, technological and investment trends revolutionizing Brain Health in our Digital Age


Last year I got very inter­est­ed in the func­tion­ing of the human brain and the sci­ence behind mind­ful­ness and learn­ing [1], so was quite excit­ed  to attend the Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit [2] in Decem­ber, indulging in the lat­est trends in applied neu­ro­science and dig­i­tal inno­va­tion.

The Sum­mit focused on the theme of rein­vent­ing brain health in the dig­i­tal age, and brought togeth­er lead­ing researchers, entre­pre­neurs, financiers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers pas­sion­ate with the mis­sion of mov­ing neu­ro­science and cog­ni­tive research from sci­ence labs towards appli­ca­tions in Health, Well­ness and Edu­ca­tion. Here’s a sum­ma­ry of the many things I dis­cov­ered.

Brain Health is ripe for a deep transformation via digital platforms and tools

Con­sid­er all the fol­low­ing brain health and men­tal health pri­or­i­ties along the lifes­pan.

Cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ties in chil­dren are grow­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly, from ADHD and OCD, to autism. Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­ders are preva­lent in 1 in ~60 chil­dren and the relat­ed emo­tion­al and eco­nom­ic bur­den is sub­stan­tial — yet, over 60–70% of those with treat­ment have poor adult out­comes, as shared by Dr. Gahan Pan­d­i­na from Janssen Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals (a com­pa­ny of John­son & John­son).

Depres­sion, stress, anx­i­ety and addic­tions: Depres­sion is a com­mon men­tal dis­or­der – glob­al­ly, esti­mat­ed 350 mil­lion peo­ple of all ages suf­fer from depres­sion. Accord­ing to WHO, depres­sion is the lead­ing cause of dis­abil­i­ty, and is a major con­trib­u­tor to glob­al bur­den of dis­ease and sui­cides. Sub­stance abuse dis­or­ders are a nation­al cri­sis in the US–around 21 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have a sub­stance use disorder–and despite sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing for pre­ven­tion and treat­ment the relapse rate is over 80%.

Cog­ni­tive impair­ments due to PTSD, trau­mat­ic or acquired brain injury, and con­cus­sions, per­vade through mil­lions of vet­er­ans and prac­ti­tion­ers of high-con­tact sports. Yet diag­no­sis and treat­ments are often elu­sive, as sys­tem­at­ic mon­i­tor­ing and brain scans are not as exten­sive­ly used as they should.

Aging-relat­ed cog­ni­tive decline: With advances in pub­lic health and med­i­cine help­ing extend our lifes­pans, a sim­i­lar effort is required to boost the cog­ni­tive func­tions of an aging pop­u­la­tion. The need and the oppor­tu­ni­ty is immense: Accord­ing to esti­mates by Bay­crest in Cana­da, delay­ing the onset of demen­tia by two years alone would lead to sav­ings of over $200 bil­lion.

Dr San­dra Chap­man from the UT-Dal­las Brain­Health Insti­tute helped con­nect all the dots and argued per­sua­sive­ly that there is no cause more urgent, and no eco­nom­ic dri­ver more pow­er­ful, than to help deliv­er and scale brain health inno­va­tions to enhance how peo­ple think, work and live.

She stressed the argu­ment that ben­e­fits of deploy­ment of tech­niques to address brain health no longer need to be con­fined to the pop­u­la­tion suf­fer­ing from impair­ments or decline of cog­ni­tive func­tions, but should be uti­lized to empow­er peo­ple of all ages max­i­mize func­tion­ing. To sup­port her case, Dr. Chap­man pre­sent­ed some eye open­ing facts about how healthy adults, through mod­er­ate dos­es of rel­e­vant train­ing, could enhance blood-flow to the frontal lobes by 12%, and increase frontal lobe con­nec­tiv­i­ty by 30%, which is sig­nif­i­cant since this is the part of the brain sup­port­ing com­plex prob­lem solv­ing, nov­el think­ing, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, judge­ment & deci­sion mak­ing, agili­ty & flex­i­bil­i­ty and strate­gic lead­er­ship – the top skills in the age of the Fourth Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion described by the World Eco­nom­ic Forum and oth­ers.

What is crit­i­cal to rec­og­nize, then, is the poten­tial to engage every­one (not just a few nar­row clin­i­cal pop­u­la­tions) via dig­i­tal brain health plat­forms and tools.


Digital brain health is attracting sizable private and public funding 

1. Snapshot of private funding

Also at the Sum­mit there were mul­ti­ple pre­sen­ta­tions from dig­i­tal health entre­pre­neurs and investors dis­cussing approach­es to rev­o­lu­tion­ize men­tal health and brain health in areas such as ADHD, sub­stance abuse, and gen­er­al brain per­for­mance.

Edward Kli­phuis from Mer­ck Ven­tures–an ever­green $300m dig­i­tal health fund backed by Mer­ck– explained how the phar­ma giant is seek­ing to work towards improv­ing patient out­comes tar­get­ing invest­ments in dig­i­tal and plat­form tech­nolo­gies that enable Assess­ment, Inter­ven­tion and Treat­ment, and has five invest­ments in neu­rol­o­gy-relat­ed com­pa­nies, includ­ing a siz­able one in Akili Inter­ac­tive Labs.

In turn, Dr. Eddie Mar­tuc­ci at Akili Inter­ac­tive Labs described how they have been build­ing a plat­form with the empha­sis on cog­ni­tive ther­a­peu­tics through gam­i­fi­ca­tion. Their vision is to have FDA-approved mon­i­tor­ing and treat­ment envi­ron­ments that cer­ti­fy the valid­i­ty of effi­ca­cy against men­tal health issues such as ADHD, Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­ders, Sen­so­ry pro­cess­ing, depres­sion, Alzheimers, demen­tia, Parkinson’s dis­ease.

Sim­i­lar­ly, we learned how Pear Ther­a­peu­tics is devel­op­ing app-based mon­i­tor­ing and gam­i­fi­ca­tion to tack­le chal­lenges such as sub­stance abuse dis­or­der, PTSD, anx­i­ety, Insom­nia, trau­mat­ic injury, and ADHD, in part­ner­ship with var­i­ous labs and phar­ma com­pa­nies, with the inten­tion to reduce costs and ensure a high­er patient reten­tion. Pear is backed by Jazz Ven­tures and its prod­ucts are in the process of secur­ing reg­u­la­to­ry approval.

Anoth­er excit­ing start-up, Mind­Maze, raised US$100M in 2016. Mind­Maze is work­ing on using vir­tu­al real­i­ty (VR), aug­ment­ed real­i­ty (AR), com­put­er graph­ics, brain imag­ing & neu­ro­science to treat patients with patients with brain injuries, stroke vic­tims, spinal cord injury and amputee patients who may have lost cog­ni­tive con­trol of their limbs – and a cou­ple of com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives shared a fas­ci­nat­ing update of their cur­rent and future solu­tions in this domain.

To round things up, pri­vate investor Char­lie Hartwell at Bridge Builders Col­lab­o­ra­tive shared his lessons learned sup­port­ing firms in the mind train­ing and mind­ful­ness space, pri­or­i­tiz­ing invest­ments in scal­able enter­pris­es that help peo­ple con­nect deeply with them­selves and con­sid­er mind-train­ing as impor­tant as phys­i­cal fit­ness. Their port­fo­lio, for exam­ple,  includes pio­neers such as Inter­ax­on (devel­op­er of EEG head­band Muse), Pear Ther­a­peu­tics, eMind­ful, Hap­pi­fy, Clar­i­tas and Head­space.

2. Snapshot of public funding in the US and Canada

We also heard about the grow­ing invest­ments from pub­lic sources, both in the US and Cana­da.

Dr. Mar­garet Grabb, who runs fund­ing ini­tia­tives at the Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health (NIMH) shared key insights about the Small Busi­ness Inno­va­tion Research Pro­gram (SBIR) and Small Busi­ness Tech­nol­o­gy Trans­fer Research Pro­gram (STTR), two fund­ing pro­grams  for start-ups help­ing com­mer­cial­ize research find­ings and plat­forms.

  • For SBIR, NIMH has set-aside $41m for FY17 alone.
  • For STTR, the FY17 allo­ca­tion is $5.7m.

–Port­fo­lio break­down of NIMH SBIR/STTR pro­grams

The Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health has a goal to trans­form under­stand­ing and treat­ment of men­tal ill­ness­es through basic and clin­i­cal research, help­ing pave the way for pre­ven­tion, recov­ery and cure. Inter­est­ing­ly, the major­i­ty of fund­ing since 2005 has been aimed at sup­port­ing IT-relat­ed ini­tia­tives: out of the port­fo­lio of US$325m and 528 invest­ments, 46% are in IT, 20% in Drug devel­op­ment, 12% in Research Tools, 8% in Soft­ware for data analy­sis and shar­ing.

Dr. Grabb also described the expe­ri­ences of sev­er­al ben­e­fi­cia­ries of past fund­ing, includ­ing Cog­i­to Corp, Think Now EEG, Behav­ior Imag­ing Solu­tions, and Xhale inc, and her insights were per­fect­ly com­ple­ment­ed when Rex Jakobovits from Expe­ri­ad shared his pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence launch­ing Viva­l­og (acquired by McKesson) and how non-dilu­tive NIMH fund­ing helped him build one of the world’s largest inter­net repos­i­to­ry for brain imag­ing scans.

Up north, it was excit­ing to hear from Ron Riesen­bach–VP of Inno­va­tion at the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Aging & Brain Health Inno­va­tion (CC-ABHI). Based in Toron­to, Bay­crest recent­ly secured five year fund­ing of $124m from the Gov­ern­ments of Cana­da and Ontario, indus­try and var­i­ous donors to build the new Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Aging & Brain Health Inno­va­tion (CC-ABHI), with a mis­sion to accel­er­ate, inno­vate and dri­ve adop­tion of proven brain health prod­ucts. For starters, they have already announced fund­ing pro­grams aimed at address­ing these four crit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties:

  • Increase inno­va­tion at point of care – $50k grants through SPARK pro­gram to enable front-line health work­ers to exper­i­ment and invent new ways to deliv­er care.
  • Sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence – through Indus­try Inno­va­tion Part­ner­ship, access to up to $600k grants to eval­u­ate prod­ucts and ser­vices, pro­vid­ing com­pa­nies with objec­tive feed­back on their inno­va­tion effec­tive­ness. For exam­ple, Ron out­lined the Cog­nic­i­ti case study.
  • Dif­fu­sion of promis­ing sci­ence to clin­i­cal teams – Clin­i­cian and Sci­en­tist Part­ner­ship sup­ports up to $600k per grant to accel­er­ate promis­ing solu­tions reach­ing the bed­side.
  • Mobi­liz­ing knowl­edge & dri­ving adop­tion – Knowl­edge mobi­liza­tion pro­gram uses advanced edu­ca­tion­al approach­es to engage clin­i­cians, learn­ers and sup­ports them in their test­ing and adop­tion of new tools.

With both pri­vate and pub­lic invest­ments back­ing research-based entre­pre­neur­ship in the dig­i­tal brain health space, the future does look sharp­er and health­i­er.

Next week I’ll share a new arti­cle via describ­ing in more depth the emerg­ing neurotechnologies–especially tar­get­ed towards consumers–that blew my mind at the 2016 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit and at CES 2017 a few weeks ago.

Apoorv Math­ur is pas­sion­ate about cre­at­ing new prod­ucts fueled by the lat­est tech­nolo­gies to aug­ment human poten­tial. An indus­tri­al engi­neer from IIT Del­hi (B.Tech.) with a Mas­ters in Oper­a­tions Research, he is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing man­age­ment stud­ies at INSEAD and Whar­ton.


  1. 1. Sev­er­al peo­ple sparked my curios­i­ty: friend Mayank Garg encour­aged my own exper­i­men­ta­tion with med­i­ta­tion; I noticed a very inter­est­ing start-up–PsyInnovations–from IIT Alum Ritvik Singh; my col­league Naheema at INSEAD is refin­ing schools with new sci­ence of learn­ing; Gun­jan Agrawal–founder of SchoolCountry–is upgrad­ing math edu­ca­tion to be fun; I teamed up with Nao­to at INSEAD to pitch an idea for intel­li­gent assis­tance to the elder­ly in Japan, and have had mul­ti­ple fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tions with friend Nilesh. Thanks to all for help­ing in my explo­ration and dis­cov­ery.
  2. The con­fer­ence is put togeth­er annu­al­ly by Álvaro Fer­nán­dez Ibáñez, CEO of Sharp­Brains, who is also the Mem­ber of the Coun­cil on the Future of Human Enhance­ment at the World Eco­nom­ic Forum. He kind­ly offered a press pass to help me attend the con­fer­ence and con­tribute a 2-part report from it.

Relat­ed arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Peak Performance, Professional Development, Technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,