Surrey-born ‘Brain Vital Signs’ technology under development. It is being called “game-changing” for global brain health. (Photo submitted)

‘Game-changing’ B.C.-born technology tests brain vital signs

B.C. neuroscientist describes the tech as ‘the world’s first objective physiological yard stick for brain function’

A new technology out of Surrey is “game-changing” for brain health.

Just ask Dr. Ryan D’Arcy of Surrey’s HealthTech Connex, whose team is responsible for the health-care breakthrough.

“You can’t fix what you can’t assess,” said D’Arcy, a B.C. neuroscientist behind the technology, which he describes as “the world’s first objective physiological yard stick for brain function.”

Dr. Ryan D’Arcy.

Along with researchers from SFU, D’Arcy has developed a new scientific framework — which includes both new terminology and new software — for analyzing complex brainwave technologies.

The team reverse engineered how vital signs are measured for blood pressure, he explained.

“We’re all aware of vital signs,” said D’Arcy. “Using a blood pressure monitor, for example. Everyone knows the concept. These vital signs are so dramatically impactful on our health.”

The new technology means vital signs now exist for the brain, similar to blood pressure or heart rate. Using scalp monitors, Brain Vital Signs measures brainwaves, and translates them into “rapid, easy to understand, deployable vital signs,” he said.

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D’Arcy, who founded both the Surrey Neurotech Lab at Surrey Memorial Hospital and Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard, said the impetus for the research into brain vital signs was “a major gap in brain health.” It’s “globally disruptive” technology, he noted, because it can aid in medical treatment of any neurological condition.

The technology has been 20 years in the making, but in the last five years, the work has transitioned from research to testing. So far, testing has involved concussions, traumatic brain injury, dementia, stroke and autism.

Tech diagnosing concussions in hockey players

D’Arcy explained that for three seasons, the brain vital signs technology has been used to monitor brainwaves in hockey players rink-side, in a partnership between Surrey Memorial Hospital, SFU and the Mayo Clinic.

Researchers take baseline measurements of players pre-season and if a player has a suspected concussion, the technology is used at the rink.

D’Arcy explained the problem with current concussion testing at sports games is it’s entirely subjective. Players are asked questions and they know how to anticipate them, he said.

“So they can make themselves seem better than they actually are. It’s not reliable.”

Of course, MRI tests could be done, but that’s not practical to do at a game, he added.

“Once there’s a question of a concussion, the player can go into the change room and very quickly, determine if there’s been a concussion,” D’Arcy explained. “Then we also get their brain vital signs when they return to play. Then post-season, when it’s over, they’re tested again.”

It’s catching concussions that otherwise wouldn’t be found, noted D’Arcy.

Even when subjective concussion tests determine a player is OK, brain vital signs testing has revealed concussive impacts. And, the testing has even uncovered concussive symptoms in players who are just taking checks during games.

“Because it’s objective, it’s brain waves, you can’t fool it,” said D’Arcy. “We know we’re more powerful than behavioural and clinical tests out there currently.”

D’Arcy explained the technology works by profiling brains across six vital signs. “It’s put on a radar plot where all six – if you’re in a good health range – form a hexagon,” he said, referencing an image that shows how the shape changes in hockey players who have been studied.

homelessphoto

(In a study of concussions in hockey players, the Brain Vital Signs technology shows healthy brains presenting as a hexagon, and concussions presenting as a triangle. Photo submitted by Dr. D’Arcy.)

“What’s interesting in this image, players have a hexagon pre-season, and then when you look at a concussion, there is a systematic change in brain vital signs that changes each of the brain responses, where the hexagon turns into a triangle. The triangle profile, we believe right now, is specific to concussion.”

Post-season tests show players revert back to a hexagon, he said.

The testing is currently on-going, but D’Arcy remained tight-lipped about what hockey team is involved.

“We are currently preparing the first round of publications, out soon,” he said.

D’Arcy said the technology has been so effective, that they’re now using it in football and are also doing work related to dementia. More studies will likely materialize as time goes on.

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Meantime, D’Arcy said the technology is in “hot demand.”

“Literally, we can’t keep up with the number of requests,” he noted. “We probably get asked around the world for it multiple times a day.”

HealthTech Connex is anticipating Health Canada approval for the technology’s hardwarde, “NeuroCatch Platform,” next summer, which will make it available to clinics, sporting facilities and care environments worldwide.

Think of the ‘NeuroCatch’ as the brain’s version of a blood-pressure monitor.

After approval is achieved, D’Arcy noted “any specialist, any clinician, could incorporate this and have this.

“It makes it available for wide-scale medical deployment.”

The technology was up for an award earlier this month, as the only Canadian finalist to compete in the 2017 SharpBrain Brainnovations Pitch Contest. While Brain Vital Signs didn’t win, it was the runner-up in the Brain Health and Performance category.

D’Arcy pitched the technology to judges over the internet and said HealthTech Connex’s vital signs was “neck-and-neck” with the victor.

The winning technology, he said, was one that looked at changes in typing patterns to show early signs of Parkinson’s Disease.

“I think the judging panel felt that was something you do anyway, so you wouldn’t have to come into a doctor’s office,” he said.

The virtual-pitch contest was part of the 2017 SharpBrains Virtual Summit, which featured more than 50 of the world’s top experts and innovators who are “working on ways to enhance brain health and performance in light of emerging neuroscience and digital technologies.”

Company developing pubicly-accessible brain tech

While HealthTech Connex’s brain vital signs technology won’t be available for the general public to purchase, the company already has another technology out to help the public manage their brain health.

Think a Fitbit for your brain, said D’Arcy.

“That’s called Brainpower,” he said. “If you want to understand how your brain is doing, you can download it on iTunes.

“We felt it was important to enable all people, so we developed this health and wellness product.”

It allows users to take daily “brain tests” to see how their brain is functioning from day-to-day, and would alert someone if there was a major change in their response, which would be a sign to see a doctor.

And coming soon down the pipeline at HealthTech Connex is something D’Arcy likened to a “Band-Aid that ties into your iPhone” that would immediately alert an individual, via their cellphone, of problems in brain functioning.

“The only debate is how quickly it will come,” he said.

All of these products have one goal, D’Arcy said: “To empower global society to manage their brain health.”

“One in three Canadians, and it’s the same across the world, experience problems around neurologic and mental health in their lifetime,” explained D’Arcy. “The other two or three are constantly concerned about it. So in terms of disruptive impact, it applies to all of us.”

All of these technologies, said D’Arcy, fit within the goal of HealthTech Connex: To turn the complexity of neuroscience into practical, useful things.

“Your brain is what makes you who you are, your personality, your soul, your job, your life, all of it. If you can imagine not knowing how your brain is doing, it means you’re missing a baseline. If I know what my heart and blood pressure is, I can manage my health.

“If I know what my heart and blood pressure is, I can manage my health. If I don’t know where my brain is at, I can’t manage my brain health.”

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And all of this advancement is happening in Surrey.

“What I love about this, when we started (Innovation Boulevard) in 2012, people didn’t think stuff went on in Surrey. They’d say, ‘What? Surrey Memorial Hospital and SFU are partnering with the Mayo Clinic?”

“It’s exciting,” D’Arcy said.



amy.reid@surreynowleader.com

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