Brainwaves Might Be Your Next Vital Sign

iStock / iStock

Chances are, when you go to the doctor for a routine appointment, a nurse takes your vital signs: blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse oxygenation levels. Soon, your doctor may also screen your brainwaves to glean important information about your brain health.

A new, noninvasive neural recording technology called NeuroCatch™, developed by researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in partnership with the Mayo Clinic, the Sheba Medical Centre in Israel, and hi-tech company HealthTech Connex, translates your neural activity and blood flow into a practical vital sign score, much like with blood pressure. Their results are published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Most research on brain health has focused on brain dysfunction, such as dementia, CTE, or other neurodegenerative diseases, according to co-lead author Ryan D’Arcy, a neuroscientist at SFU and Surrey Memorial Hospital. D’Arcy’s team realized they needed to look at healthy brains to understand and treat future injury or degeneration and fill in “the critical missing part: a baseline,” he tells mental_floss.

A baseline measure or score of brain health is key in conditions like concussion, for which recovery can be a slow process. “One of the biggest challenges is not knowing your baseline, so you can’t find out if your brain function changed away from that, if there’s a suspected concussion, and then if it did, when it returns back to its previous state. The baseline is critical,” he says.

For the past 20+ years, brain health has been quantified in “event-related brain potentials (ERPs)” derived from electroencephalography scans (EEG), but it has remained largely in the research lab, and not the clinical setting of doctors' offices. Most often, brain health has been determined through behavior-based measures, such as the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), which evaluates conscious awareness after brain injury.

D’Arcy’s team combined the existing neural recording techniques, advances in machine portability, and more sophisticated computer algorithms to make the NeuroCatch system possible for clinical use.

A portable unit connects simple sensors to the scalp of the patient and then records their neural activity in three areas, or indicators: auditory sensation, basic attention, and cognitive processing. Each indicator gets a score, and these three are added up for a combined score representing overall brain health, which sets that all-important baseline.

In the current study, they tested NeuroCatch on 16 participants between the ages of 22 to 82 years, with no history of neurological problems or psychoactive medications. The participants underwent neuropsychological screening along with EEG/ERP testing to set a baseline of brain health. The ERP responses then generated an overall brain vital sign score.

“The innovation is really about taking the complex brainwave data and turning it into a focused simple number … [or] score that represents your brain is operating within healthy range,” D’Arcy says. What’s more, the score can also be compared against others' scores to see if it’s in range with the general population.

They say their system will also be able to help people who just wish to increase their cognitive processing in some way. “If you want to make your brain processing better, you now have a way to measure that,” D'Arcy says.

Using this technology, new studies are in the works to monitor healthy cognitive enhancement as well as the early detection of dementia.