Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Witnessing an explosion of consumer-facing neurotechnologies to (potentially) harness lifelong neuroplasticity

Last week I shared some key sci­en­tif­ic, tech­no­log­i­cal and invest­ment trends rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing Brain Health, based on my par­tic­i­pa­tion at the 2016 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit, and promised a sec­ond arti­cle more focused on the tech­nol­o­gy side of things.

Here it is 🙂

Just a few weeks after the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit I also attend­ed CES 2017. While I enjoyed the myr­i­ad emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies –autonomous vehi­cles, robot­ics, drones, aug­ment­ed and vir­tu­al real­i­ty head­sets, voice acti­vat­ed every­thing– I was most­ly struck by a firm named Halo Neu­ro­science. They have a fas­ci­nat­ing wear­able prod­uct, Halo Sport, claim­ing to accel­er­ate gains in strength, explo­sive­ness, endurance, and mus­cle mem­o­ry, improv­ing the brain’s response to ath­let­ic train­ing. It uses tDCS (tran­scra­nial direct cur­rent stim­u­la­tion), essen­tial­ly prim­ing move­ment-relat­ed cir­cuits of the brain to become more recep­tive to stim­uli, help­ing the brain wire in the prac­tice for improved future response.

The cutting edge of applied neuroplasticity

Both con­fer­ences allowed me to see the cut­ting edge of the pro­duc­ti­za­tion of tech­nolo­gies emerg­ing out of R&D labs, enabled by the core fact–neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty–that the human brain changes and adapts phys­i­cal­ly with every thought we have. What fol­lows from this fact is that through tar­get­ed ways to train, acti­vate or stim­u­late spe­cif­ic cir­cuits of the brain (through men­tal exer­cis­es, med­i­ta­tion and neu­rostim­u­la­tion), we could learn faster, bet­ter and become men­tal­ly stronger. You may have heard of firms offer­ing rel­e­vant “men­tal train­ing” solu­tions in the con­sumer space, such as Head­space (mind­ful­ness) and Lumos­i­ty (cog­ni­tive train­ing), despite the often lim­it­ed and con­tro­ver­sial results from ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als.

It is impor­tant to real­ize that we are wit­ness­ing the first and ten­ta­tive steps of a very promis­ing per­va­sive neu­rotech toolk­it. Our bet­ter under­stand­ing of neu­ro­science, along with  dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, will sure­ly offer a range of valu­able dig­i­tal brain health solu­tions. As UC-San­ta Barbara’s Ken­neth Kosik explained at the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit, there are strong dri­vers fuel­ing future growth for new men­tal health tech­nolo­gies such as EEG, VR & AR, even TMS (tran­scra­nial stim­u­la­tion), DBS (deep brain stim­u­la­tion) and more futur­is­tic tech­nolo­gies such as syn­thet­ic mem­o­ry chips to lever­age brain waves and deep learn­ing tech­niques to direct­ly com­mu­ni­cate with, and aug­ment, brain func­tion­ing.

The com­ing of age of mobile, sens­ing, wear­able, dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence can enable con­tin­u­ous brain and mind mon­i­tor­ing, per­son­al­ized and quick diag­noses and treat­ments, task-spe­cif­ic neu­ro­feed­back, and com­ple­ment tra­di­tion­al treat­ment modal­i­ties such as phar­ma­co­log­i­cal inter­ven­tions. For exam­ple:

  • Bet­ter med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness prac­tice via Apps, EEG bio-sen­so­ry feed­back
  • Per­son­al­ized med­i­cine and adher­ence via gam­i­fi­ca­tion and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI)
  • Sen­so­ri­mo­tor and phys­i­o­log­i­cal improve­ments via EEG, Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty
  • Non-inva­sive Cog­ni­tive enhance­ment through tar­get­ed exer­cis­es adap­tive in real-time, enabling bet­ter learn­ing and absorp­tion

Educating and guiding consumers to make good lifestyle and technology decisions

Sci­en­tists, entre­pre­neurs, exec­u­tives and investors are jump­ing on the oppor­tu­ni­ty wag­on to help of all us be smarter, sharp­er, health­i­er, and faster for longer. The research is still in its infan­cy, so hope­ful­ly mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers will col­lab­o­rate to ensure that the indus­try matures in ways that max­i­mize ben­e­fits while min­i­miz­ing risks — and this was also part of the con­ver­sa­tion at the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit.

For exam­ple, investor Char­lie Hartwell gave a great overview of the mind train­ing space, dis­cussing a wide range of tools includ­ing apps for (i) mind­ful­ness, emo­tion­al ones like Head­space, Hap­pi­fy and (ii) cog­ni­tive train­ing like Lumos­i­ty, Peak, Cog­niFit, (iii) med­ical, FDA-approval-path treat­ments such as Akili Inter­ac­tive Labs, Pear Ther­a­peu­tics and (iv) wear­ables such as Muse. And many in the audi­ence asked, this is great, but how will con­sumers know what to use and what not to, and how and when? For­tu­nate­ly he had antic­i­pat­ed the con­cern and shared the frame­work below, from The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness, show­ing how to put togeth­er the dif­fer­ent parts of the brain health puz­zle, and how to use tech­nol­o­gy to aug­ment (not to replace) our lifestyles.

There’s clear and grow­ing inter­est by front-line prac­ti­tion­ers and pol­i­cy-mak­ers who real­ize the lim­its of our cur­rent brain health and men­tal health approach­es and want to help har­ness the dig­i­tal ther­a­peu­tics toolk­it in appro­pri­ate ways.

Many of the Coach­es and Psy­chol­o­gists of the Future–represented in the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit by the Insti­tute of Coach­ing, The Synapse Sys­tem, the new Wat­son Cen­tre for Brain Health, among others–are expand­ing their prac­tices with lat­est brain & cog­ni­tion find­ings and dig­i­tal neu­rotech­nolo­gies. It was wor­thy of note that the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Clin­i­cal Neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy (AACN) announced a new Dis­rup­tive Tech­nol­o­gy Ini­tia­tive to accel­er­ate the devel­op­ment of “assess­ments and/or inter­ven­tion-pre­ven­tion-improve­ment of cog­ni­tive func­tions, acces­si­ble to the entire pop­u­la­tion.”

On the pol­i­cy front, both the Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health (NIMH) and the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Aging and Brain Health Inno­va­tion (CC-ABHI) shared sub­stan­tial fund­ing pro­grams to help start-ups access seed cap­i­tal and devel­op and com­mer­cial­ize evi­dence-based dig­i­tal brain health plat­forms.

Innovation is accelerating, both among start-ups and large firms

Now back to the tech­nol­o­gy and mar­ket land­scape. Many pio­neers are work­ing on ways to–quoting Alvaro Fer­nan­dez– “har­ness neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty for good” via cog­ni­tive assess­ments and ther­a­pies (Brain­HQ, Akili, Pear Ther­a­peu­tics, Myn­dY­ou, Click Ther­a­peu­tics, Cog­nic­i­ti, SBT Group) mind­ful­ness apps (Clar­i­tas Mind­sciences), EEG (Emo­tiv) vir­tu­al real­i­ty (Mind­Maze), and more.

One of the speak­ers who inspired me the most at the  Sharp­Brains Sum­mit, Dr. Michael Merzenich from UCSF–win­ner of the 2016 Kavli Prize in Neu­ro­science and Chief Sci­ence Offi­cer at Posit Science/BrainHQ–  dis­cussed his work to devel­op and val­i­date cog­ni­tive train­ing across all ages, in ways that could not just stem aging-relat­ed cog­ni­tive decline but pos­si­bly even reverse it or at least sig­nif­i­cant­ly delay it.

Mind­ful­ness is anoth­er area with grow­ing inter­est and activ­ity. The great talk by Dr. Jud­son Brew­er, who is the Founder of Clar­i­tas Mind­sciences and Researcher at Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, showed how addic­tions (such as smok­ing and binge eat­ing) could be bet­ter man­aged via mind­ful­ness train­ing — pre­lim­i­nary find­ings show that the brain is able to dis­as­so­ci­ate the con­nec­tion between crav­ing and addic­tive behav­ior.

Old and new play­ers in edu­ca­tion–Pear­son, ETS, UC Berke­ley, the Arrow­smith School– are devel­op­ing dig­i­tal and in-per­son pro­grams to pro­mote life­long learn­ing and life­long brain devel­op­ment. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to learn about how the Arrow­smith Pro­gram part­ners with dozens of schools so that hun­dreds of stu­dents can access well-tar­get­ed and struc­tured cog­ni­tive train­ing address­ing one cog­ni­tive func­tion at a time–logical rea­son­ing, rela­tion­ships, prob­lem solv­ing, self-reg­u­lat­ing atten­tion, inter­pret­ing emo­tion and mod­i­fy­ing behav­ior– empow­er­ing them to become more effec­tive, self-direct­ed & autonomous learn­ers.

Edu­ca­tion giant Pear­son showed dig­i­tal assess­ments and cog­ni­tive ther­a­peu­tics inter­ven­tion tools such as Cogmed and Reha­ComRichard Varn, Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Advanced Tech­nol­o­gy and Neu­ro­science at Edu­ca­tion­al Test­ing Ser­vice (ETS), dis­cuss­es bet­ter ways to iden­ti­fy at-risk learn­ers and help with time­ly, tar­get­ed and effec­tive inter­ven­tions, con­tin­u­al­ly mea­sur­ing the out­comes of edu­ca­tion­al inter­ven­tions — for exam­ple, he out­lined col­lab­o­ra­tions with IBM Wat­son and oth­ers lever­ag­ing fast feed­back loops & machine learn­ing to tar­get per­son­al­ized and indi­vid­ual tutor­ing.

Final­ly, a word about emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies to enable sen­so­ri­mo­tor and phys­i­o­log­i­cal improve­ments. Mind­Maze is a fas­ci­nat­ing com­pa­ny that raised $100 mil­lion last year – it uses Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty (poten­tial­ly com­bined with EEG) to help patients reha­bil­i­tate motor move­ments after stroke or oth­er brain injuries.

I hope this arti­cle gives you a glimpse of the lat­est and great­est in the indus­try. Excit­ing, mind-blow­ing times…

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.

 

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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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