Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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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