Imagine a device you wear on your head, as routinely as a wristwatch, and just as comfortable and unobtrusive. You wear it to help you focus when you’re working, and to switch off when you’re not – or perhaps because it helps you to manage depression, or anxiety, or to stay mentally sharp as you age. It constantly monitors you for early warning signs of neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis.
This device does not yet exist – not quite. But at the current rate of progress, it may be only years away. ElMindA, a World Economic Forum technology pioneer, and EMOTIV, run by Tan Le, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, are among the companies working to make it happen.
EMOTIV produces hardware – affordable EEG headsets, which measure electrical activity in the brain – along with software to help users make sense of the output. ElMindA is a purely cloud-based software company, specifically developing therapeutic applications: it gathers EEG data, using EMOTIV’s hardware or someone else’s, and tries to work out what’s normal and what’s cause for concern.
The brain, says ElMindA’s CEO, Ronen Gadot, is a “black box. We know a lot about its structure. We know it works through firing neurons – hundreds of millions, every second. But how do we measure that neuronal firing from outside the skull and make sense of it? That’s what we’re figuring out”.
Tan Le, Founder and CEO of EMOTIV, calls the brain “the most complex structure in the known universe”. There are, she points out, different techniques to study it: “You can get amazingly high spatial resolution from fMRI scans. The picture you get from EEG is fuzzier, but we use it because it’s dynamic – we can monitor brain activity in real time”.
Until recently, measuring EEG was a serious hassle. You’d need a hairnet of sensors painstakingly attached to your skull, with a sticky gel that you’d have to shower off afterwards. Effectively, that limited research to the lab. Tan Le says: “We wanted to make brain research portable, to make it easier to study the brain in different settings: driving, say, or walking through a forest”.
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EMOTIV currently markets two devices along with software and algorithms to decipher meaning from the myriad of electrical signals that can be observed. The more sophisticated, the EPOC+, is currently being used by academic researchers in India, who are investigating how the brains of remote rural villagers differ from those living in modern, urban societies. t’s quicker and easier to set up than traditional hairnets, there are fewer sensors, and it uses saline solution rather than gel.
Then there’s the Insight, which is cheaper and simpler. It’s also less scary-looking, resembling a backwards-worn pair of sunglasses: “PhD students don’t mind wearing lots of sensors on their heads,” observes Tan Le. “But ordinary people can find it undesirable.
“Granted, having fewer sensors means there are fewer data points. But it can still usefully measure brain states such as arousal, engagement, valence, how much attention someone is paying to a task.” Among its current uses are consumer insight and market research studies, including test TV screenings: “unlike in traditional focus groups, there’s no risk of groupthink”.
Other users of the Insight include sportspeople: “There’s a link between performance and ‘arousal’, the fight-or-flight response. To begin with, the greater the stress that is applied, the more aroused you are, the better you’ll perform; but past a certain point, more arousal decreases performance. Where that point is differs for each individual – by learning where yours is, you can learn to optimize your mental state”.
The Insight also appeals to “quantified self” enthusiasts: early adopters of the notion that improving your understanding of how your own brain works can help you to train it to work better: “You can get to know, for example, how nootropic drugs affect you: how much of a kick does caffeine give you, and how long until it tapers? Or if you’re working late, it can help you understand when to persevere and when to get some sleep”.
For now, the Insight isn’t in High Street shops: “It’s still a ‘prosumer’ product. But I believe we’re reaching an inflection point of consumers being ready for it – thanks to the convergence of trends like the power of smartphones and the cloud, and growing acceptance of wearables.”
In the future, Tan Le believes one of the biggest benefits of devices like the Insight will be helping people to manage their lifestyles to extend their brain health as they age: “The biological brain,” she says, “isn’t built to last 100 years”.
For his part, Ronen Gadot explains how ElMindA derives insights from data: “Not all the information from neuronal firing goes through the skull. There’s lots of noise, from muscle movement and the environment. How do you distinguish the signal from the noise?”
It’s a challenge further complicated by individual variations: “There are many similarities in how your brain and my brain process information. But each of the world’s 7.6 billion brains is slightly different. What’s normal for me may be abnormal for you.
“Consider a neuro-degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. It actually starts some 20-30 years before it’s diagnosed. Because the brain is so sophisticated, it can compensate for deterioration in some neural pathways – the diagnosis happens only when it can’t compensate any more. But if we could tell what’s normal for each individual, we could see at a much earlier stage where patterns were changing in a way that indicate disease.”
ElMindA is working towards individual understanding by teasing out differences that are typical of categories of people: by age, or gender, or genetic disposition. “We have, for example, started monitoring several thousand older people at The Villages in Florida, to understand better how brains typically change as they age.” EMOTIV is also amassing data on normal, healthy brains that could potentially inform ElMindA’s algorithms.
ElMindA’s first brain-mapping product is now officially approved for use in Europe and the US – but it is still some way off being able to diagnose warning signs of mental illness reliably. Initially, the focus is on helping clinicians to monitor changes in the function of brain neuronal networks that are associated with injury, disease progression and therapeutic interventions.
It could, for example, monitor recovery from head injuries incurred in sporting or other accidents, or help predict how well an individual is likely to respond to options for therapy – which, with problems such as depression, currently involves a lot of trial and error. ElMindA’s cloud-based software and big database are also being used by pharmaceutical companies and researchers to develop more effective drugs.
“To be successful in this field requires a lot of collaborative work,” says Gadot. “We need lots of collaboration with academics, clinicians, pharmaceutical and other companies to create enough data to work with. Ultimately, the more I know about the puzzle of who you are, the more I will be able to personalize my services to help you see more, know more and do more about your brain's wellbeing.”
Yet, as with collecting any personal data, there are risks. Tan Le mentions one: “We’re all familiar now with algorithms that suggest a movie or a product you might be interested in. Suppose I know much more intimately how your brain works, and what stimuli you respond to in what ways. In theory, that could enable me to trigger your emotions and manipulate your behaviour.
“We have a responsibility to be vigilant, and admit that we don’t yet have all the answers.” But if we can get the safeguards right, the payoffs in human wellbeing could be profound.