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:

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?