Imagine going to your GP and having your heart-rate or blood pressure tested. Completely normal, right? Now imagine how you’d react if your doctor pulled out an electrode cap and tried to measure your brain function. At best, most people might be a little concerned.
Researchers at Simon Fraser University are hoping that future generations will think very differently. In fact, they hope that this sort of test will be routine.
It may seem like science fiction to suppose that all GP surgeries will have the capabilities to conduct examinations of brain function. After all, measuring brain activity has always been very complicated, sometimes messy and often expensive. In order to get a brain scan you have to either have a serious brain deficit, or a serious amount of money. Professor Ryan D’arcy and his team, in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, Sheba Medical Centre in Israel and HealthTech Connex Inc, have spent the past 20 years developing a technology which overcomes these roadblocks in order to make neurological assessments accessible to all.
Currently, one of the cheapest and easiest ways to measure brain function is through an electrode cap, known as an electroencephalogram, or EEG. When a neuron fires it gives off an electrical signal. This signal is picked up by electrodes placed against the scalp and transformed into a waveform. The example below shows a typical pattern from an ‘awake’ brain.
This sort of technology has, until now, mainly been used in two ways:
1) In research studies to determine what different areas of the brain do.
2) Following brain injuries to determine which areas of the brain have been affected by the trauma.
Results are usually compared to large samples of ‘healthy’ individuals in order to work out whether or not the brain in question is functioning normally.
Professor D’arcy now hopes to expand the application of this technology in order to provide a more knowledgeable, individualised and effective health service.
He has developed a framework which can translate the messy, complicated EEG output into a simple and meaningful ‘score’ of your brain’s health.
The framework was first tested on three very well-researched auditory signals (known as event-related potentials or ERPs):
1) N100 for auditory sensation
2) P300 for basic attention
3) N400 for cognitive processing
Professor D’arcy transformed ERP data of 16 participants from their basic waveforms into his numerical representation of Brain Vital Signs (a score out of 30).
The below diagram represents the framework used to reduce the complexity of the waveform signal into a comprehensible figure.
The figure gleaned from this data can be submitted into a personal database and following multiple brain scans, this information can then be tracked over time. This means that you can compare information about your brain functioning to your own baseline levels, which will lead to a much more useful and usable assessment of your health.
The framework, simply called ‘Brain Vital Signs’, has been dubbed a “global game-changing healthcare breakthrough”. It is eventually hoped that everyone will have access to technology which uses the framework to measure neural health on the go.
With a whole host of so called ‘brain diseases’ ravaging the old and young alike, it is an extremely worthwhile endeavour. I personally hope that this technology could one day be used to predict and prevent dysfunction, as well as diagnose brain health.
For instance, there are nearly 44 million people living with Alzheimer’s Disease or a related dementia today, and the disease costs the global economy $605 billion a year, which is equivalent to 1% of the entire world’s gross domestic product (Alzheimers.net).
If we could predict and/or prevent Alzheimer’s disease from manifesting in the first place, we could not only save billions of dollars a year on healthcare, but also save millions of lives. It is currently the 6th leading cause of death in America.
Preventing Alzheimer’s disease is clearly a long way off, but technology which makes brain function assessments easier and more accessible will certainly help to bring us much closer to this goal.