How Much Can We Learn About Brain Health From New ‘Mind Reading’ Helmets

By Aishwarya Jagani | August 23rd, 2021

Bryan Johnson, CEO of neuroscience start-up Kernel, wants to put a ‘helmet in every household.’ Could Kernel’s wearable, sensor-loaded brain monitoring device be the key to understanding brain health and aging?

Neuroscience start-up Kernel has developed a wearable helmet that aims to understand how the brain ages and develops, with a series of sensors and other electronics that measure a brain’s oxygenation levels and changes in magnetic fields, analyzing how it responds to the world. 

Using existing technology, Kernel’s idea is to provide alternatives for the giant brain scanning devices used in hospitals, by a helmet that could be categorized as ‘wearable tech.’ 

Tests like spinal taps and brain scans have advanced scientists’ understanding of the pathology of diseases like Alzheimer’s, but these diagnostic tools can be geographically and financially inaccessible, not to mention physically and psychologically taxing, for patients.

Meanwhile, the helmets aim to provide a comfortable brain scan experience at home, democratizing access to brain scan technology.

“People are accustomed to being in big systems like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), where there’s 120 decibel sound and you’re in a claustrophobic encasement, or EEG (electroencephalography) which is just painful, or surgery,” Kernel’s CEO Bryan Johnson said on the Lex Fridman podcast. “This is a convenient option to be able to just put on your head; and it measures your brain activity in the contextual environment you choose — at home, in a business setting.” 

Kernel has developed two models of this helmet: Flow and Flux. The company claims that Flow can “establish precise patterns of brain activity” and Flux can “show brain activity at the speed of neurons in real-time,”according to the company’s website, providing access to “the intricate brain activity underlying functions such as arousal, emotion, attention, memory, and learning.”

Both models are an attempt to miniaturize existing brain scanning technology, and provide a comfortable, non-invasive way for users to measure brain activity. 

“The human race has done a pretty good job of trying to quantify different things around us, from distant stars to calories and steps and our genome. So we can measure and quantify pretty much everything in the known universe, except for our minds,” Johnson said

“We do have things like an FMRI scan or low-res EEG systems, but we haven’t done this at population scale ..If you think about human thought or human cognition, it’s the single largest raw input material into society at any given moment,” he continued. “The most significant contribution that Kernel technology has to offer is the introduction of the formal engineering of cognition, as it relates to everything else in society.” 

Johnson is very excited about “putting a helmet in every American household,” he said, and he hopes they will be inexpensive enough by 2030 that not only the super-rich can buy them, democratizing access to an understanding of subjective brain function and mental health. 

In an interview with Bloomberg, Johnson said, “If you went to a cardiologist and they asked you how your heart feels, you would think they are crazy,” Johnson said. “You would ask them to measure your blood pressure and your cholesterol and all of that.” 

In addition to helping people understand and quantify their own brains, these helmets could also provide insights into neurodegenerative diseases. 

Johnson felt that brain healthcare has long been missing accessible diagnostic tests like those that measure heartbeat, blood pressure, oxygen levels etc, and wants to change that with Kernel. 

In addition to helping decode brain health, Kernel executives believe the helmet could also offer researchers insights into neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or Huntington’s. 

Understanding Neurodegenerative Diseases

In addition to helping improve brain health in general, its makers — and brain health advocates in the dementia care community — believe this helmet could also be used to further research into neurodegenerative diseases. 

“There has been evidence of such helmets furthering the research in neurodegenerative diseases,” a spokesperson at DelveInsight, a pharmaceutical and healthcare market research firm, told Being Patient in an email.

Analysts at the firm gave the example of a wearable device developed by NeuroEM Therapeutics, that was able to significantly improve memory loss in seven of eight participants within two months. This device, while involved in brain health, differs significantly from the Kernel helmet and was designed primarily to help in cases of memory loss. The Kernel helmet, on the other hand, is focusing on applications in monitoring and research. 

“From a research point of view, it is very exciting to see how these helmets will fare in expanding the horizon for clinical researchers for efficient diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases and also to understand which therapy might actually be helpful in delaying progression or even curing the condition. How much these devices fare in actuality remains to be seen,” the DelveInsight spokesperson said. 

Johnson shared this excitement, and said he plans to send a few of Kernel’s helmets to Harvard Medical School, the University of Texas, and the Institute for Advanced Consciousness Studies, where the helmets could be used to gain insights into Alzheimer’s, brain aging, and the effect of meditation.

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Check out the Lilly Trial Guide.

However, some neurological experts are skeptical about the potential to advance research. 

Dr. Alberto Espay, professor of neurology and director of the James J. and Joan A. Gardner Family Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders at the University of Cincinnati, said, “The helmet measures blood flow oxygenation, which can be confounded by many processes and does not necessarily imply brain function. For now, I think that is of limited value.”

“I’m not sure exactly how it can advance research,” Espay told Being Patient. “It is a cool toy but the applications are unlikely to change what we know about the brain’s work in an individual.”

Dr. Andrea Sturchio, who recently worked on a collaborative study with Espay into brain amyloidosis as an Alzheimer’s marker, agreed: “This technology could be helpful for some specific research, or as a brain/computer interface for very specific things, however I don’t think it can be a game-changer for the understanding of how the brain age or for Alzheimer’s disease (or other neurodegenerative diseases),” he wrote to Being Patient in an email. 

“We already have these technologies and the interpretation is not as easy,” Sturchio added. “Moreover, it would not help understand alteration of fluid biomarkers, which in turn are the ultimate target of disease-modifying therapy. This device, in the absence of a very advanced device that analyzes the data, will offer a lot of data that will be difficult to understand and analyze,” he said. 

Sturchio also pointed out that some of the features of the helmet do not provide relevant information about brain activity. 

“For example,” he said, “the increase in blood flow could be not associated with an increase of the activity of the brain, or an activity that is functional. It is also missing an essential component, which is the possibility to have imaging of the brain.” 

“Consistent Monitoring of Brain Function Could Help Give Early Warning Signals of Degradation”

Although the potential for these helmets to be helpful in Alzheimer’s  research may be limited, Neal K. Shah, founder and CEO of CareYaya, an elder care tech start-up with a focus on dementia, believed they could help with day-to-day care of those living with Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases and provide an easier, less invasive way of measuring cognition and brain function. 

“Often, it’s complex to decide when the patient needs help with moderate in-home care, then with full-time assistance, then with needing to move out of their house and into a care facility, etcetera,” Shah told Being Patient. “And typically, these decisions are made after an accident happens, i.e., someone leaves the stove on and sets off the fire alarm; wanders off into the neighborhood and neighbors find them wandering down the street and call the police.”

“Having real-time consistent monitoring of brain function could help give early warning signals of degradation of brain function, helping the family decide to proactively seek care help,” he added, “instead of waiting for accidents to happen, and seeking help reactively.”

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