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

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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 SharpBrains.com 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.

Notes:

  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:

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

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