5 Facts You Need To Know To Understand, Navigate And Enjoy The Digital Brain Health Revolution

Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies around the globe, now includ­ing Elon Musk’s Neu­ralink and even Face­book,  are research­ing and devel­op­ing new ways to help brain own­ers be smarter, sharp­er, and healthier.

What explains this flur­ry of activ­i­ty? Where may it be headed?

To help you under­stand what’s going on, let me high­light five key facts that emerged from the recent Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit.


Fact 1. There are 7.5 billion human brains out there, and everyone needs help

Con­sid­er all unmet needs derived from the tra­di­tion­al phar­ma-exclu­sive approach to brain health.

Learn­ing and cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ties in chil­dren are grow­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly, from ADHD and OCD, to autism. The relat­ed emo­tion­al and eco­nom­ic bur­den is sub­stan­tial — yet, over 60–70% of those with treat­ment have poor out­comes, and many who need help don’t get any.

Glob­al­ly, around 350 mil­lion peo­ple suf­fer from depres­sion. Add to that sub­stance abuse, and we are talk­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple with­out prop­er care and very high relapse rates for the lucky ones get­ting help.

Con­cus­sions and brain impair­ments per­vade through mil­lions of vet­er­ans and high-con­tact sports prac­ti­tion­ers, yet diag­no­sis and treat­ments are elusive.

And let’s not for­get the per­fect­ly healthy.

What can we do to strength­en brain con­nec­tiv­i­ty at any age, enhanc­ing com­plex prob­lem-solv­ing, nov­el think­ing, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, agili­ty & flex­i­bil­i­ty and strate­gic lead­er­ship – con­sid­ered to be the top skills to suceed in the Fourth Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion as described by the World Eco­nom­ic Forum?

Addi­tion­al­ly, we all age one day at a time and (hope­ful­ly) will live longer and longer lives, so address­ing aging-relat­ed cog­ni­tive decline should be a top pri­or­i­ty, and one where repeat­ed phar­ma­co­log­i­cal-dri­ven attempts have proven to be a disappointment.

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

Fact 2. Lifelong neuroplasticity means all those brains can “sculpt” themselves

Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor of his own brain” — neu­ro­science pio­neer San­ti­a­go Ramón y Cajal

Inno­va­tion is enabled by the core fact—called neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty–that the human brain con­tin­u­al­ly changes itself through expe­ri­ence. Neuroplasticity–or brain plas­tic­i­ty– refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to rewire itself based on expe­ri­ence by gen­er­at­ing new neu­rons and by form­ing new con­nec­tions between neu­rons, among oth­er fac­tors. It was believed for a long time that, after a cer­tain age, the brain became “fixed.” Now we know that the brain nev­er stops chang­ing, and that’s why there’s so much inter­est and hope around ways to har­ness that neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty to lead bet­ter lives, to enhance our brains, to delay brain health decline.

What fol­lows from this fact is that we can strength­en spe­cif­ic cir­cuits of the brain (through edu­ca­tion, our jobs and lifestyles, and also through men­tal exer­cis­esmed­i­ta­tion and neu­rostim­u­la­tion), in order to learn faster, bet­ter and become more resilient.


Fact 3. Mobile, sensing, wearable technologies, coupled with AI, provide a new platform to harness that neuroplasticity for good

We are wit­ness­ing the com­ing of age of a very promis­ing per­va­sive neu­rotech toolk­it enabling new dig­i­tal brain health solu­tions.

For exam­ple:

  • Eas­i­er access to med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness prac­tices via apps, bio/ neurofeedback
  • Per­son­al­ized med­i­cine and increased adher­ence via gam­i­fi­ca­tion and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI)
  • Sen­so­ri­mo­tor and phys­i­o­log­i­cal improve­ments via Vir­tu­al and Aug­ment­ed Reality
  • Non-inva­sive Cog­ni­tive enhance­ment through tar­get­ed inter­ven­tions adap­tive in real-time, enabling bet­ter learn­ing and consolidation

At the Sum­mit we saw any 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 activ­ity. Clar­i­tas Mind­sciences, for one, is work­ing to bet­ter man­age addic­tions 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 Data and machine learn­ing plat­forms such as IBM Wat­son to iden­ti­fy at-risk learn­ers and help with time­ly and tar­get­ed interventions.

(Click here to Learn from 100+ Brain Experts, Watch 40+ Hours at the Lead­ing Edge)

Fact 4. Entrepreneurship and investments are fueling accelerated growth

With both pri­vate and pub­lic invest­ments back­ing inno­va­tion in the dig­i­tal brain health space, the future does look sharp­er, health­i­er and brighter.

Mer­ck Ven­tures–an ever­green $300m dig­i­tal health fund backed by Mer­ck—is seek­ing 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. Akil­i’s vision, as dis­cussed in the Sum­mit, is to have FDA-approved mon­i­tor­ing and treat­ment envi­ron­ments that cer­ti­fy the valid­i­ty of effi­ca­cy to address a vari­ety of men­tal health issues.

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 a vari­ety of brain injuries.

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), help­ing start-ups com­mer­cial­ize research. 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.

Fact 5. Professionals are stepping up to help educate consumers and patients

All this flur­ry of inno­va­tion has, unfor­tu­nate­ly, also led to much con­fu­sion and controversy.

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?

For­tu­nate­ly, there’s grow­ing inter­est by front-line prac­ti­tion­ers who want to help har­ness the new 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.”

Many of the Coach­es and Psy­chol­o­gists of the Future–represented in the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit by the Insti­tute of Coach­ing, the Wat­son Cen­tre for Brain Health, among others–are expand­ing their prac­tices with lat­est brain & cog­ni­tion find­ings and neu­rotech­nolo­gies, and help­ing end-users nav­i­gate and inte­grate the grow­ing range of options — For exam­ple, the frame­work below, com­ing from the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness, shows how to inte­grate and pri­or­i­tize the mul­ti­ple pieces in the brain health puz­zle, using tech­nol­o­gy to aug­ment (not to replace) our lifestyles.

The future is already here — it’s just not very even­ly dis­trib­uted” — essay­ist William Gibson.

Well, let’s take on that dis­tri­b­u­tion chal­lenge and help appro­pri­ate­ly spread the knowl­edge and the tools :-)


Alvaro Fer­nan­dez, proud pro­duc­er of the annu­al Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit, is a mem­ber of the World Eco­nom­ic Forum’s Coun­cil on the Future of Human Enhance­ment and a Judge of the Glob­al Teacher Prize.

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.

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