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 RehaCom. Richard 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.
- Survey of key scientific, technological and investment trends revolutionizing Brain Health in our Digital Age
- 10 neurotechnologies about to transform brain enhancement and brain health
- Infographic on the Digital Brain Health Market 2012–2020
- 2016 SharpBrains Virtual Summit : Reinventing Brain Health in the Digital Age
- Neurotechnology Can Improve Our Lives—if We First Address These Privacy and Informed Consent Issues