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Interview: AI-powered app could transform the way we treat dementia

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Neuro tech startup BrainBerry has developed an AI-powered app and headset that could help the brain fight dementia.

The gamified app, which aims to improve cognitive, emotional and behavioural wellness, also provide detailed individualised reports based on each user’s abilities and responses to the activities via cognitive scores. While the headset monitors the user’s brain activity in real-time as they play the cognitive games.

This provides a targeted game therapy based on brainwave activity allowing the user and health professionals to gain greater insight into the user’s neurological condition while improving their neurological symptoms.

Health Tech World spoke with BrainBerry CEO Kartheka Bojan, after the company was selected as an Innovation Winner in the HealthTech section of the Super Connect for Good Competition.

HTW: How did BrainBerry come about?

“We started in 2018 and struggled for a long time before we received any investment or university backing because it’s a life sciences company, so it’s always hard to prove your idea works. 

“I was able to collaborate with a university eventually and we started clinical trials at the end of 2019. 

“But the clinical trials completely stopped at the beginning of 2020 because of the pandemic so I couldn’t get any further investment because I couldn’t prove that the system would work.

“And because we were working with dementia patients we had no other option but to wait.

“So I decided to change the plan and we put the app into the market as a non-clinical device that could help people with dementia.”

HTW: How does the app work?

“The aim of the app is to stimulate the brain and it’s based on a concept called neuroplasticity. 

“The science of neuroplasticity is simple, your brain has the capacity to learn irrespective of ageing because it can transfer a certain function to a different region of the brain if necessary.

“Let’s say I had a stroke and one part of my brain is damaged. My brain has the capacity to move that function to a different part of the brain.

“Your brain can also enlarge or shrink, depending on your learning capabilities. This is why the brain shrinks as dementia progresses.

“So the aim is to try to stimulate the brain and create a new memory while the old memories are depleting, so it’s recreating a cognitive function in the brain through the concept of gamification.

“For example, a dementia patient might forget how to make a cup of tea. But if they can learn how to do it through gamification, over a period of time, the brain will learn how to do it in real life. And they’ll be able to do it for a much longer time. So it’s also delaying the progression of the disease.

“But this gamification needs to be carefully designed for people with dementia. It can’t just be Sudoku or something. Our game has 36 activities that focus on spatial memory, working memory and visual patterns.

“We have a web portal where we encourage carers and family members to upload pictures which then become part of the gamification. 

“As the user plays, the app provides cognitive scores on users memory, attention and language. This can then help a carer or GP to understand how far the disease has progressed and what symptoms they’re experiencing so they can care for them accordingly. 

“This also allows them to see if the therapy is working, if they are seeing an improvement or if the degradation is increasing. This allows the carer or GP to tell if they’re moving to a different stage of the disease.

“Right now, people can’t do that. And that’s that causes a lot of trouble within the care system because they’re treating all dementia patients the same when they’re all experiencing different symptoms.

Kartheka Bojan

HTW: How does the headset come into it?

“We’re also developing a wearable headset which measures the brainwave activity so we will be able to identify exactly which brain region gets triggered or deactivated when a particular game is played. 

“For example, the first symptom of dementia for one person might be forgetting a family member. For someone else, it might be anxiety and stress.

“The headset would be able to pick that up and change the game to focus more on meditation, and improving the user’s sleep.

HTW: What will you do with the data you collect?

“Once we’ve collected all the data and created our own system we’re going to try to connect it with the NHS and social care providers so everybody has the same data.

“And the whole idea is to stop people being prescribed anti-dementia drugs in the early stages of the disease because they can actually accelerate its progress especially if they are used to sedate or calm patients.

“If we collect the data over the next ten years then we would have a prognosis model for dementia, which could predict if someone is going to develop dementia based on their brain activity,”

HTW: How has the response been?

“We’ve been providing the app directly to consumers and we’ve had some interesting feedback.

“One person downloaded the game and uploaded some pictures so his father, who is in a care home, could play. And when his dad was playing, he looked at one of the pictures and started talking about it. 

“He said the game improved the quality of their visit because when he would normally visit they didn’t have anything to talk about so the game gave them something to do together, 

“Another really interesting example was an 80 year old with early dementia who had never used a tablet before. She like the game so much she was able to learn to operate one.

“We had a piece of negative feedback as well. One person refused to play because they didn’t like the game and they didn’t like the tablet. So we concluded that there are always going to be people who are not going to like it because it’s too technical for them. Or they might have extra complications like seizures or Parkinson’s.”

HTW: It sounds like a really interesting idea that could help a lot of people, why was it so difficult to get funding?

“It’s really tough when you’re a life sciences company because when you go to investors some of them just don’t get the concept.

“They are focusing on getting a fast return on their money so they’re very willing to invest in dementia dolls, for example, because that’s quick money, rather than something really high tech that will really help people. 

“And there are other people who understand the technology but only want to invest a little bit in the early stages, then they can benefit when big investors come along and put lots of money in.“

HTW: What’s next for BrainBerry?

“We are in the last stage of developing the headset and the algorithm is nearly ready. So when we get more investment we’ll go for a clinical safety study and get medical device approval so that we can launch the product to care homes.

“We are also launching it to pharmaceutical companies who are doing drug trials in Alzheimer’s and dementia because once they have the headband they will be able to monitor them cognitively and alter the dosage.”

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