Startups are looking to disrupt the treatment of brain disorders by merging technology and neuroscience. They claim that advancements in brain imaging, coupled with the use of tiny electrical currents, have allowed them to create headsets that can change the way parts of the brain communicate. These startups also claim their products could help treat a range of diseases, including depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

One such company, Cerestim, is leveraging advancements in how brain activity can be monitored and altered to bring discoveries out of the laboratory and into the real world. Cerestim is developing a headset to treat depression and other disorders using a technique called transcranial brain stimulation, which addresses a huge gap in the current treatment methodology.

Brain disorders’ share of the total global burden of disability and mortality is projected to rise from 11 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2020, which would outpace even the anticipated increase in heart disease during that time. The biggest problem facing caregivers is that up to 30 percent of the afflicted cannot be treated with traditional pharmaceutical therapies, according to the World Health Organization — and this is where companies like Cerestim come in.

“Having a nonpharmacological treatment for such patients is absolutely essential, and I am optimistic that we can get some success in that area and offer some symptomatic relief to those individuals where the drugs don’t work whatsoever,” Alan Palmer, director of Cerestim, told International Business Times.

The company is developing a headset that can be used by patients in their homes and remotely monitored by physicians, who will be able to control how often the device is used. Cerestim also says that thanks to the headset's ability to read a patient's brain waves, it will be able to adapt treatment to each individual user — something current electrical treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) simply cannot do.

Depression is a medical condition with a possible  biological basis. Although the exact causes are still being identified, companies developing headsets like Cerestim believe the problem lies in the miscommunication between certain areas in the brain due to misfiring cells or neurons.

Cerestim's headset aims to read a patient's brain waves to identify where this "dysfunctional communication" is happening and, using specially designed electrodes tailored for each individual, repeatedly deliver small alternating electric currents to a particular area of the brain to reset the firing mechanism.

Ecectroconvulsive therapy The pervasive image of using electrical currents to alter brain function is of machines like this ECT machine from the St. Audry's Hospital asylum in Suffolk, England, which closed in 1993, but new companies are looking to change that view. Photo: Reuters

One of the challenges facing Cerestim and other companies developing products in this field is having to overcome the negative connotations of ECT. “Applying an electric current to your head is scary,” Palmer admits.

But whereas the smallest current an ECT machine can apply is 750 milliamps, Cerestim's headset will use an alternating current of just 2 milliamps. Additionally, where ECT purposely attempts to bring on convulsions, Cerestim’s solution will be painless. "It takes time for such technologies to be accepted, but I think the process has started,” Palmer said.

Cerestim, which is based in the U.K., was founded in 2014 by Dr. Nir Grossman, who is researching transcranial electrical stimulation at MIT Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company says that proof of concept has been demonstrated, and it is close to signing a clinical research organization to put its technology into a clinical trial of patients with depression to establish efficacy.

Alzheimer’s Treatment

While the application of this technology to treat depression is likely to be the initial focus of testing, the method behind it can also be applied to a range of other disorders, including insomnia, migraines and potentially even Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists know the physiological progression of Alzheimer's and that it follows a distinct pathway within the brain, beginning in the entorhinal cortex. “You could envisage the stimulation of the entorhinal cortex region of people with very early forms of Alzheimer’s,” Palmer said. “You could see some benefit in applying an electrical stimulation there to get the neurons in that vulnerable area more active.”

There are already a couple of companies with devices on the market that offer similar benefits to transcranial brain stimulation, using a different technique. This technology, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, also uses a tiny electrical current to alter patients' brain waves, but it requires a large magnet, necessitating a visit to a clinic for treatment, and each machine can cost in excess of $100,000.

Cerestim’s headset, on the other hand, will cost around $50, according to Palmer, when it comes to market in three to five years, pending regulatory approvals. And it will be fully portable — allowing patients to be treated in their own homes.

Relaxation Therapy

That said, this is still very much a medical device and will be controlled by doctors rather than the patients themselves. However, there is another set of companies that are looking to develop consumer-focused headsets that also take advantage of advancements in the ability to read brain waves and brain functions.

Melomind Brain Reading Headset The Melomind headset from MyBrain Technologies aims to teach people to relax using an accompanying smartphone app. Photo: MyBrain

Dr. Rohan Attal and Dr. Thibaud Dumas co-founded MyBrain Technologies after meeting at the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris, one of the most renowned centers for neuroscience research in the world. The pair’s first product is called Melomind, a headset that works in collaboration with an app on a smartphone to read brain waves and craft unique “audio journeys” to help the user learn to relax.

The company’s goal, according to Attal, is to “take the latest discoveries in neuroscience from the laboratories to the global market and provide a solution to provide better health and well-being.”

Attal and Dumas demonstrated their app on the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, seeking to set themselves apart from the flood of wearable and health-focused technology, which was one of the big trends of the show — but MyBrain is not interested in becoming the Fitbit for your brain.

“We didn’t want just a quantified-self product; we wanted something that can help people in a proactive way, improve their own brain function through the concept of brain training,” Dumas told IBT. Helping people relax and addressing stress may not sound like treating depression, but as Attal points out, a lot of physical disorders such as insomnia and migraines are related to stress.