Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Four reasons the future of brain health is digital, pervasive and bright

Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies and sci­ence labs around the globe are research­ing the inner work­ings of the human brain and mind, and devel­op­ing new ways to help brain own­ers be smarter, sharp­er, and health­i­er for longer.

What explains this flur­ry of activ­i­ty?

To answer that ques­tion, let us high­light four key dri­vers dis­cussed in depth at the 2016 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit, held last Decem­ber, when over 200 par­tic­i­pants in 16 coun­tries met to dis­cuss the great­est and lat­est about neurotech­nolo­gies that, being dig­i­tal, are scal­able and rel­a­tively inex­pen­sive, and that, being non-inva­sive, pose few if any neg­a­tive side-effects.


1. Significant and growing unmet needs make the field ripe for a revolution

Con­sid­er all unmet needs.

Cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ties in chil­dren are grow­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly, from ADHD and OCD, to autism. Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­ders are preva­lent in about 1 in 60 chil­dren and the relat­ed emo­tion­al and eco­nom­ic bur­den is sub­stan­tial — yet, over 60–70% of those with treat­ment have poor out­comes.

Work at UT-Dal­las Brain­Health Insti­tute, for exam­ple, can help increase frontal lobe con­nec­tiv­i­ty, which is sig­nif­i­cant since the frontal lobes sup­port com­plex prob­lem solv­ing, nov­el think­ing, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, judge­ment & deci­sion mak­ing, agili­ty & flex­i­bil­i­ty and strate­gic lead­er­ship – the top skills to suceed in the Fourth Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion described by the World Eco­nom­ic Forum.

Depres­sion is a com­mon men­tal dis­or­der – glob­al­ly, esti­mat­ed 350 mil­lion peo­ple of all ages suf­fer from it. And 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: Accord­ing to esti­mates by Bay­crest in Cana­da, delay­ing the onset of demen­tia by two years alone would lead to sav­ings of over $200 bil­lion.

In short: for one rea­son or anoth­er, 7.5 bil­lion human brains need bet­ter access to bet­ter and cheap­er brain health and men­tal health solu­tions.


2. The coming of age of mobile, sensing, wearable technologies opens scalable opportunities

At the same time, we are wit­ness­ing the com­ing of age of a very promis­ing per­va­sive neu­rotech toolk­it. Our bet­ter under­stand­ing of neu­ro­science, along with dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, has start­ed to offer a range of dig­i­tal brain health solu­tions, as 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

Inno­va­tion is enabled by the core fact—called neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty–that the human brain con­tin­u­al­ly changes itself through expe­ri­ence. What fol­lows from this fact is that through tar­get­ed ways to acti­vate spe­cif­ic cir­cuits of the brain (through men­tal exer­cis­esmed­i­ta­tion 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), but that’s only the tip of the ice­berg.

Many pio­neers are work­ing on ways to “har­ness neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty for good” via cog­ni­tive assess­ments and ther­a­pies (Brain­HQ, Cog­niFit, Akili, Pear Ther­a­peu­tics, Myn­dY­ou, Click Ther­a­peu­tics, Cog­nic­i­ti, SBT Group) mind­ful­ness apps (Clar­i­tas Mind­sciences), EEG (Emo­tiv, Interaxon’s Muse) vir­tu­al real­i­ty (Mind­Maze), and more.

Mind­ful­ness is anoth­er area with grow­ing inter­est and activ­ity. Clar­i­tas Mind­sciences, for exam­ple, is work­ing to bet­ter man­age addic­tions (such as smok­ing and binge eat­ing) via mind­ful­ness train­ing — pre­lim­i­nary find­ings show that the brain is able to dis­as­so­ci­ate the con­nec­tion between crav­ing and addic­tive behav­ior.

Edu­ca­tion giant Pear­son has been buy­ing and licens­ing dig­i­tal assess­ments and cog­ni­tive ther­a­peu­tics inter­ven­tion tools such as Cogmed and Reha­Com, while the Edu­ca­tion­al Test­ing Ser­vice (ETS), is using Big Bata and machine learn­ing to bet­ter iden­ti­fy at-risk learn­ers and help with time­ly, tar­get­ed and effec­tive inter­ven­tions– for exam­ple, col­lab­o­ra­tions with IBM Wat­son and oth­ers can lever­age fast feed­back loops & machine learn­ing to tar­get per­son­al­ized and indi­vid­ual tutor­ing.


3. Private and public funding is growing rapidly, given expected social and financial returns

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

Mer­ck Ven­tures–an ever­green $300m dig­i­tal health fund backed by Mer­ck—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—which is 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, 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.

There is also grow­ing invest­ments from pub­lic sources, espe­cial­ly in the US and Cana­da.

The Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health (NIMH) runs 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. 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.

Up north, 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, such as web-based cog­ni­tive assess­ment Cog­nic­i­ti.


4. Professional bodies are joining the fray

There’s also clear and grow­ing inter­est by front-line prac­ti­tion­ers 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. For exam­ple, the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Clin­i­cal Neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy (AACN) announced at the 2016 vir­tu­al Sum­mit a new Dis­rup­tive Tech­nol­o­gy Ini­tia­tive to accel­er­ate the devel­op­ment of “assess­ments and/or inter­ven­tion-pre­ven­tion-improve­ment of cog­ni­tive func­tions, acces­si­ble to the entire pop­u­la­tion.”

Pro­fes­sion­al guid­ance is going to be impor­tant. When you see all the apps for (a) mind­ful­ness, such as Head­spaceHap­pi­fy, (b) cog­ni­tive train­ing like Lumos­i­ty, Peak, Cog­niFit, © med­ical, FDA-grade treat­ments such as Akili Inter­ac­tive Labs, Pear Ther­a­peu­tics and (d) EEG wear­ables such as Muse and Emo­tiv, you may be think­ing, this is great, but how will con­sumers know what to use and what not to, and how and when?

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, and help­ing end users nav­i­gate and inte­grate the grow­ing range of options — For exam­ple, the frame­work below, from The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness, shows how to put togeth­er the dif­fer­ent parts of the brain health puz­zle, and how to use tech­nol­o­gy to aug­ment (not to replace) our lifestyles.

We hope this arti­cle gives you a use­ful and hope­ful glimpse of the future of brain health.

Excit­ing, mind-blow­ing times…

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez, a proud mem­ber of the World Eco­nom­ic Forum’s Coun­cil on the Future of Human Enhance­ment, runs Sharp­Brains — an inde­pen­dent mar­ket research firm track­ing applied neu­ro­science.

Apoorv Math­ur is pas­sion­ate about aug­ment­ing 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.

Addi­tion­al resources:

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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