Science Scope

How a brain sensor hopes to replace your shrink

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Philip Low, the founder of NeuroVigil, wants to change the way the brain is studied. Not only can the iBrain be used to test drugs in clinical trials, it can be used to identify neurological conditions.

Dr. Philip Low started Neurovigil when he was a graduate student. His professor warned him that it would fail. But despite all odds, it only took Low a couple of years to introduce the first portable brain sensor to the world.

Low called it the iBrain. As a pioneering scientist, Low was the first person to test out his sensor. It worked just as he expected. The single electrode device could detect what was happening inside his brain.

Now, drug companies are using the iBrain to study the effects of drugs on the brain. But in the near future, the portable brain sensor could be used to identify a number of neurological conditions way before the symptoms ever show up.

Unlike traditional neurological testing, the iBrain can be used in the home.

SmartPlanet: How did you think to create a device that could read brain waves?

PL: When I started in this field, everyone told me not to pursue this. I was doing some work on birds. The birds were rehearsing a song when they were sleeping. I was recording their brain waves and was seeing interesting patterns in the data. I found that the brain waves in birds were close to mammalian patterns.

So I went to the University of Chicago Medical Center to talk to the head of the sleep division there. All I wanted to do was borrow the algorithm from him. He wouldn’t loan it to me. However, he did invite me to the clinic the following week.

At the clinic, we looked at squiggly lines on the screen. After a few minutes, I asked if that was the algorithm.

He said, there wasn’t an algorithm.

SmartPlanet: So you created a device that could read brain patterns?

PL: The results encouraged us to apply the technology to brain disorders.

Now it’s being used to screen drugs better. In clinical trials, we monitor brain waves - before, during and after.

SmartPlanet: Why is it called iBrain?

PL: I called it iBrain to give it the notion that this was going to be a very portable device that could be used to record one's brain activity. The iBrain is the first personalized brain monitor. It uses a single channel. There is enough information in the data, so we only need one. Usually the electrodes are all over the head and body and are glued to the skin. Instead, iBrain works like a patch and a patient can apply it in less than 30 seconds.

SmartPlanet: What makes it unique?

This device can be used at home.

We can beam data on people’s cell phones. It’s another way of sending data back to NeuroVigil.

If you go into a restaurant and you ask how many have checked their brain waves, very few will say they have. If we can give people simple tools, they can collect their own brain activity. When we scale this up, we will have mounds of data and detailed information about brain conditions.

SmartPlanet: So how is a person’s brain waves related to disease?

PL: Well, it depends on the disease. Brain waves contain all kinds of information on different parts of the brain. It is often possible to actually identify particular regions of the brain by paying attention to these signals. Your brain uses different combinations of neurotransmitters to talk to itself. By looking at the brain, we have a good shot at seeing if a person has a condition.

People with schizophrenia have defective spindles that are produced during stage 2 sleep. Patients with Parkinson’s show signs that their REM sleep is disrupted. People with depression fall into REM sleep sooner. And people with Alzheimer’s have REM sleep fragmentation.

We are collecting biomarkers for these neuropathologies. We are using sleep as a mirror into the brain and an opportunity to monitor how people respond to treatment.

SmartPlanet: How is what you are doing different than what the DNA companies are doing?

PL: Maybe there are some similarities, but there are two main differences. We are a clinical company so everything we do must go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Second, we are interested in phenotypic data instead of genotypic data. People might have information in their genes about their risk factors, but we can actually see what is happening inside the person's head.

SmartPlanet: What’s next?

PL: We are using it to monitor people while they are sleeping, but we have other projects that go through the sleep-wake cycle.

Initially, we did receive some push back from technicians. They were worried that our technology would replace them. But our data speaks for itself. It’s exciting to give the neuroscientists a tool to collect more data.

SmartPlanet: So have you personally used the iBrain?

PL: Yes, I used it several times.  I was the first wearer of the device.

SmartPlanet: Did iBrain teach you anything about yourself?

PL: I’m a short sleeper, but I already knew that. My brain patterns seem to be quite fine.

SmartPlanet: How do you think iBrain will be used?

PL: We will have tremendous opportunity to collect information about people’s brains while they are at home. It is possible that a large amount of data will be generated outside the lab.

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure