While sophisticated neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) provide a significant boost in our understanding of the brain — and sexy research frequently reported all over the media — they are extremely costly. This makes it difficult to reach the mass scale required to conduct clinically meaningful research and to improve the brain care of millions if not billions of individuals around the globe.
Good news is, we are witnessing an explosion of new methods that make use of low cost, already ubiquitous technologies to inform brain health prevention, diagnoses and treatments on a wide scale.
Max Little’s popular TEDTalk, “A Test For Parkinson’s With A Phone Call” provides a great example. Assuming the 10,000-subject experiment run by the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative is successful, we will soon have a new disease measure that is both accurate and accessible. The brain may be an amazingly complex organ, but with the right tools and some ingenuity, we can build on that complexity to find new ways to improve brain health across the full lifespan. Parkinson’s, as Little points out, afflicts over 6 million individual worldwide, but it’s just one of a number of neurological conditions that together take a terrible collective toll. Think about ADHD, concussions, depression, Alzheimer’s Disease, and more. Improving prevention and care for all these conditions faces one common obstacle: the lack of scalable assessments that can help objectively assess and monitor the continuum between health and disease. Without them, we need to rely exclusively on very expensive medical equipment and clinical evaluations, which means too few people, and too late, access them.
So what are some alternatives? Little’s experiment is based on the phone. Others are researching blood tests. A surge of innovation is already taking place in Internet-enabled digital platforms designed to monitor and enhance cognitive and emotional functioning. For example, a recent market report, titled “The Digital Brain Health Market 2012-2020: Web-based, mobile and biometrics-based technology to assess, monitor and enhance cognition and brain functioning,” predicts that, by the end of 2013:
– More than one million adults in North America alone will take a self-administered annual brain health check-up via their iPad or Android tablet.
– iPad-based cognitive screenings will inform more diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease and MCI than neuroimaging.
– More than one million amateur athletes will better manage possible concussions by taking cognitive baseline tests via a mobile device.
– Biometrics-aided meditation will become the next big thing in corporate and consumer wellness.
– More than 150,000 teenage and adult drivers will access web-based brain training to become safer drivers.
These tools are especially powerful when used, as we also saw in Little’s talk, in combination with large datasets that provide researchers and developers with an unprecedented amount of information used to hone their diagnostic and predictive abilities. Over the course of this decade, we will likely see Big Data applications that will enable truly personalized brain health solutions, based on an individual’s brain characteristics and progression over time. If we are to meet a massive and growing need, we’ll need to disrupt today’s status quo in which research is based on small and fragmented clinical trials, and where active brain care is often left for patients whose problems have grown until it is too difficult to manage them.
Now, tools bring no value without users. What is truly exciting is the confluence of factors making brain health and fitness a priority for the general population. Eighty three percent of respondents to a recent survey of 3,000+ decision-makers and early adopters said that “adults of all ages should take care of their ‘brain fitness,’ without waiting for their doctors to tell them to” and also that they “would personally take a brief assessment every year as an ‘annual mental check-up.'” At the same time as the idea of brain fitness starts to go mainstream (contrast where physical fitness was fifty years ago with where it is now), equipment that used to be expensive and cumbersome is becoming user-friendly and inexpensive.