A new brain recording device is changing the way scientists study the brain. Its miniature size and innovative recording capabilities allow data to be transmitted directly to a computer while we’re asleep at home. Understanding brain activity during sleep, researchers think, may unlock the secrets to understanding a range of neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and depression. The new device is such a significant improvement over existing technologies that it has attracted private funding that raises the company valuation to $250 million–from a technology pioneer who wishes to remain anonymous.
Philip Low was a graduate student at the Salk Institute, working towards a PhD studying brain activity during sleep. He’d chosen Salk upon the recommendation of Francis Crick of Watson and Crick DNA fame. From this auspicious start, Low joined the Computational Neurobiology Lab at Salk where he discovered a fundamentally new way to assess brain activity.
Measuring brainwaves during sleep normally entails electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings. These types of recordings are made by placing a number of disc-shaped electrodes around the scalp–you’ve probably seen pictures of them and thought of a shower cap with a bunch of nodes sticking out. The problem with this setup when conducting sleep research is that each of the nodes–often 16 or more–have wires attached to them. All of the wires and the bumps on your head make for a tough night’s rest, leaving both the subject and the researchers to suffer. Low got around this by developing an EEG cap that has only a single node. His head harness is lightweight and secures only a single, small box to the head. Better yet, the system is wireless.
Reducing an EEG cap to a single channel is no small feat. The reason so many electrodes are used to record EEGs is to make 3D mapping of the signals easier. A recorded brainwave isn’t interesting unless you know what part of the brain from which it originates. By recording the same signal with multiple electrodes researchers are able to triangulate the location of that signal’s origin. Watch Low use iBrain to monitor his own brain activity in the video below.
So how does Low’s single electrode determine a signal’s location without any other reference points with which it can compare? Math. Lot’s of math.
Not only did Low invent a single electrode EEG cap, he invented software that receives the data and, using an algorithm that Low computed himself, can tease apart the multitude of EEG signals from the entire brain and map them back in 3D space. Sound complicated? The algorithm that Low came up with is half a million lines.
I admit I haven’t had the time to look at the actual algorithm (you can laugh) so I can’t tell you anything more about its mapping function. But I’ll bet you $250 million it works.
What’s more, Low’s algorithm quadruples the amount of useful data compared to conventional EEGs, and it also takes out the grunt work of analyzing that data. Typical EEG analysis requires researchers to visually review the data coming in from the multiple electrodes and process it manually. Low’s algorithm automates the data analysis process so researchers don’t have to lift a brain muscle. In a head-to-head comparison (get it?), the algorithm was more accurate than manual methods at analyzing a night’s worth of data and cut the job time down from 30-60 minutes to just a few seconds.
Imagine, your graduate student can actually take the weekend off.
But even as a graduate student himself Low had bigger plans for his single-channel EEG system and its algorithm than making sleep research easier for himself and his colleagues. In 2007, the year he defended his thesis, Low founded a company to develop his inventions. The company is called NeuroVigil, the single-channel EEG has become iBrain, and the software he named SPEARS (Sleep Parametric EEG Automated Recognition System Algorithm).
Overachiever? For all that work he summed it up in a one-page thesis (I might add, though, that the appendix was 350+ pages).
I know what you’re thinking. Today, Dr. Low is 31 years old.
Nowadays Low is hard at work developing his iBrain with the hopes that the device will one day be used to diagnose neurological disorders. Low points out that 70 million people in the US have sleep disorders but only 4 million have had sleep tests. By enabling the patient to perform their own recordings in their own homes, the sleeper-friendly iBrain could be used to diagnose many people with sleep disorders who don’t want to have a sleepover at the hospital.
But the iBrain won’t be used solely for the benefit of people with sleep disorders. Many researchers are currently investigating how sleep disorders are linked to a number of neurological conditions. This is a complex question. The changes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and also to sleep disorders are not known. Low hypothesizes however that sleeping disorders brought on in Alzheimer’s patients will be due to the same underlying biological malfunction. He reasons that if the disease and the sleeping disorder are related in the same way among patients, then recording brain activity while the patients sleep might turn up unique patterns of activity present in the their brains but not in the brains of normal individuals. If it turns out that unique activity signatures are indeed there, then people could detect onset of a disease by regularly monitoring their brain activity while they sleep. Low hopes to apply this approach to help detect other neurological disorders associated with sleep disorders, including depression, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.
That’s a big “if” though, given the fact that a biological link between these diseases and sleeping disorders is far from proven. Low however, not easily deterred, aims to find the link if there is one.
Aside from its smaller size and lack of wires, the iBrain differs from conventional EEGs in that it doesn’t require a special computer or program to collect its data. Perhaps with such a study in mind, Dr. Low made the iBrain’s EEG data compatible with desktop computers and even cell phones. People with disorders of all types, from all over the world can strap on an iBrain and collect brainwave patterns immediately on their cell phones or computers. After the data’s collected they would send it to NeuroVigil for analysis. It’s here that the iBrain’s ease of use comes in big. Its accessibility may just allow Low to recruit enough participants to find those disease signatures, if they do in fact exist.
Of course, as with conventional EEG, the iBrain is not limited to the study of brain phenomena related to sleep. iBrain is already being used in clinical trials to document potential signatures of pre-market drugs on the brain. Here again the ease with which iBrain can collect data on a regular basis and over a long period of time makes EEG amenable to applications not previously feasible with conventional EEG.
Philip Low appears to be one of those rare minds that is both brilliant and unstoppable. He is an inventor, an entrepreneur, a professor with appointments at both Stanford and MIT.
He is a young man who's not hard to believe in. And someone certainly does believes in him, although he won’t tell us who he is just yet. According to NeuroVigil, the funding put forth by this “anonymous American industrialist and technology visionary” is “twice the combined seed valuations of Google’s and Facebook’s first rounds.” Accounting for a listed 2% of NeuoVigil's stock, the series A funding is probably around $5 million. It’s not hard to guess that the top speculations for the mystery investor are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Google’s Sergey Brin.
Whoever it is, I just hope they can keep up with Dr. Low.