Overview of Neurotechnology

By Thea Levinson & Aspen Runkel

Neurotechnology Overview

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Neurotechnologies are those technologies that deal with nerves or the nervous system (neuro). A simple Wikipedia summary describes neurotechnology as “any technology that has a fundamental influence on how people understand the brain and various aspects of consciousness, thought, and higher order activities in the brain.  It includes technologies that are designed to improve and repair brain function and allow researchers and clinicians to visualize the brain.” The field of neurotechnology has been around for nearly half a century but has reached maturity only in the last twenty years. The advent of brain imaging revolutionized the field, allowing researchers to directly monitor the brain’s activities during experiments.

The market for neurotechnology is exploding.  Oliver Oullier from Fortune is quoted:

“For devices alone, Neurotech Report projected a $7.6 billion market in 2016 that could reach $12 billion by 2020. And today’s hardware market is just the tip of the iceberg, as illustrated by an analysis of more than 10,000 IP filings worldwide by market research firm SharpBrains, in a report to which I contributed. The overall financial impact of such neurotechnologies is tremendous. Overall, if you include the medical uses of neurotech, other devices, and all the businesses that can benefit from brain-related technologies, this is a field that’s generating well over $150 billion in revenues annually.”

Prior to the advent and implementation of neurotechnology, achieving feedback about the activities and functions of the brain was not well understood.  Generally, information was limited to findings from experts which were based on opinions, arbitrary information, and hypotheses.  The other alternatives to understand brain activity and functions included physically examining the brain through surgery or autopsy, both of which are risky and inconvenient.

Currently, modern science can image nearly all aspects of the brain as well as control a degree of the function of the brain. For example, neurotechnology can help subdue depression, over-activation, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and many other conditions.  Therapeutically neurotechnology can help improve stroke victims’ motor coordination, improve brain function, reduce epileptic episodes, improve patients with degenerative motor diseases (Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, ALS), and can even help alleviate phantom pain perception.

Advances in the field of neurotechnology promise many new enhancements and rehabilitation methods for patients suffering from neurological problems. As neurotechnology advances, it will potentially allow society to control and harness more of what the brain does and how it influences lifestyles and personalities.

Related to neurotechnology are brain-computer interfaces and neurofeedback.  A brain-computer interface (BCI) is a direct communication pathway between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device.  BCIs are focused primarily on neuroprosthetics applications that aim at restoring damaged hearing, sight, and movement. The cortical plasticity of the brain enables signals from implanted prostheses to be handled by the brain like natural sensor or effector channels after adaptation.  (One of our classmates’ projects focuses on brain-computer interface, and we have linked to it here.)

Neurofeedback is one the earliest applications of BCI.  Neurofeedback is biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity to teach self-regulation of brain function.  Typically, sensors are placed on the scalp to measure activity, with measurements displayed using video displays or sound. In contrast to other BCI applications, neurofeedback BCIs usually rely on Electroencephalogram (EEG) derived features. EEG refers to the recording of the brain’s spontaneous electrical activity over a period of time, as recorded from multiple electrodes placed on the scalp.

In this technology overview, we are most interested in the neurotechnologies that deal with the brain or the part of the central nervous system enclosed in the cranium which controls and coordinates mental and physical actions. We were originally led to this topic due to our interest in a wearable neurotechnology called Muse which is a brain sensing headband used for meditation.  We will look into a variety of neurotechnologies, but will pay particular attention to wearable consumer neurotechnologies aimed at mental health and wellness.

Use Cases and Market Applications of Neurotechnology

Our research on neurotechnologies shows that neurotechnologies are most prevalent in a clinical setting but have expanded into other business-to-business and business-to-consumer applications as the technology has advanced and diversified.

Oliver Oullier’s article titled “This is Your Brain on Business” states, “Neuroscience and neurotechnologies matter far beyond their scientific and medical applications. We are not just our brains, of course. We interact with physical, digital and social worlds that are in turn impacted by how well our brains function, from performance at the workplace to personal relations. That fundamental truth has opened a wealth of interest in neuroscience, in leadership sectors far beyond medicine.”

Clinical Applications

Neurotechnologies were first used in a clinical setting and are primarily used by professionals.  Examples of these include:

EEG (Electroencephalogram):
EEG refers to the recording of the brain’s spontaneous electrical activity over a period of time, as recorded from multiple electrodes placed on the scalp. The brain is just like an electrical battery.  An EEG machine measures brain waves. If the patient is awake, it measures alpha waves (short active waves) and when the patient is asleep it measures other waves like delta waves (long inactive waves). This is pictured below.

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CAT Scan (Computerized Axial Tomography):
A CAT scan is just a really sophisticated x-ray of the brain. It provides a 3D picture of the brain which is great for locating tumors, but it does NOT show brain activity or function.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging):
An MRI provides the most detailed picture of the brain. It uses magnetic fields to knock electrons off their orbit and takes a picture by seeing them run back to their orbits.  There is no radiation so the procedure is safe. Like CAT Scans, an MRI provides an idea of brain structure, not function.  This machine is pictured below.

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PET Scan (Positron Emission Tomography):
A PET scan is the best way to see activity in the brain. The patient will usually swallow a substance (like glucose) and the PET scan will see what parts of the brain are using the substance. If a patient seems to be using a lot of the substance in a certain part of the brain, it shows what part of the brain is working.

Functional MRI:
A functional MRI is essentially a combination of the PET scan and the MRI. The fMRI can offers the best picture of the brain while showing use blood flow information.

Mainstream Applications

Another category of interesting neurotechnologies are consumer technologies that have emerged as the field has progressed and commercial opportunities have arisen. Unlike clinical applications of neurotechnologies which focus on visualization, research and professional treatment, consumer applications of neurotechnologies allow individuals to use this technology in a variety of ways. Examples of consumer technologies include:

i. Muse – The Brain Sensing Headband

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Muse is an EEG headband which allows users to do a guided meditation session. Rather than meditating in the traditional sense, the user places the Muse headband on her head and may start the meditation session once the five sensors on the headband are picking up strong enough signals from her brain. The headband connects to an app on the user’s smartphone. The app gives instructions before each session on what the user should focus on or think about during that particular session. Once the session begins, the user hears sounds present in various weather patterns.  For instance, the user may hear wind, rain, or birds chirping – each of which reflects her brain activity.

The goal for the user is to keep her mind calm and clear. When her mind is calm and clear, the weather will also become calm (wind will settle, rain will stop, etc.). When her mind is more active, the weather turns into somewhat of a mild storm to signal that the user should make an attempt to once again calm her mind. At the end of the session, the user can see how she did during the session and measure it against previous sessions.

The following images show what the device looks like and demonstrate the benefits of using muse.

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Muse currently sells for $249.99 on Amazon.

For more information about Muse, we encourage you to view video on Muse’s youtube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/user/interaXon

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ii. Smith Lowdown Focus – Mpowered by Muse

The Lowdown Focus sunglasses are a joint product created by Smith – the long-time Italian sunglasses manufacturing company – and Muse. The sunglasses are an on-the-go version of Muse. They connect to an app that is similar to the Muse app and are meant to bring the user’s mind to a place of focus when she needs it most (at work, during athletic activity, before an important interview, etc.). The glasses are much more inconspicuous than other EEG headbands, but are still able to successfully sense the brain. The sunglasses also have the capability to track fitness activity, similar to the way a Fitbit would.

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The above image shows how the product is advertised by Muse.  Smith also published a video titled “SMITH Lowdown Focus mpowered by Muse | Up your mental game” which you can view at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0pDhme6mHc

Smith Lowdown Focus sunglasses currently sell for $349 on their website.

iii.  EMOTIV

EMOTIV describes itself as, “the pioneer of simple to use, high quality, mobile EEG technologies. Recognized and validated by the scientific community and developers worldwide, our brain wearables offer access to advanced brain monitoring and cognitive assessment technologies at affordable price points.”

The EMOTIV EEG headbands are marketed to be used for performance and wellness, brain research and education, and consumer insights. EMOTIV offers two hardware devices:

  • The EMOTIV Epoc+ is a revolutionary Brain Computer Interface and Scientific Contextual EEG offering high resolution, 14 EEG channels + two references. It is a wireless EEG system for entertainment, market research & usability testing and neurofeedback.
  • On the other hand, the EMOTIV Insight is a five-channel, wireless headset that allows users to optimize his or her brain fitness & performance, and measure & monitor his or her cognitive health & wellbeing. The EMOTIV Insight is meant to be worn throughout the day or throughout a certain activity to generate information about the brain through constant monitoring.

These are pictured in the image below.

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The EMOTIV Epoc+ currently sells for $799 on their website and the EMOTIV Insight currently sells for $299 on their website.

EMOTIV also offers two pieces of software, pictured below.  EmotivPRO is EMOTIV’s integrated software solution for neuroscience research and education, built for Epoc+ and Insight.  EmotivePRO capabilities include data acquisition (view real time data streams and save recordings), event marking (define and insert timed markers into data stream), quick analysis (customize and view results without having to export data), and simple integration (setup devices and manage licenses with user-friendly interface).

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MyEmotiv is the companion app to the EMOTIV INSIGHT and EPOC+ wearable EEG headsets.  MyEmotiv allows the user to capture brain activity over six key cognitive and emotional metrics which include: interest, excitement, engagement, focus, stress, and relaxation.  It interprets brain waves, making measuring mental performance and fitness easy.  With the app, users are able to capture, save, and play back brain recordings.  Users can then take that information, compare their results, and get recommendation from the Emotiv community on daily activities to improve focus and manage stress.   EMOTIV’s performance metrics provide real-time detection of cognitive and emotional states, so EEG insights are available right away.

MyEmotiv is currently free in the App Store and the Play Store and EMOTIV INSIGHT either sells for a monthly rate of $99 or a monthly rate of $89 for a full year and can be purchased on their website.

Barriers to Success and Suggested Solutions

Though neurotechnology has the potential to improve our understanding of ourselvesand the human brain in a completely revolutionary way, many barriers are present in the neurotechnology marketplace. As with any new technology, diffusion into the marketplace is crucial for successfully integrating the technology into society. The three key barriers we address are insurance, privacy, and the lack of adoption and diffusion of this innovation.

Barrier: Insurance

Neurofeedback offers a treatment for anxiety, cognitive disorders, depression, ADHD, Aspergers, and other cognitive conditions.  Despite this, neurofeedback treatment is not yet covered by most insurance companies because it is still considered an experimental form of treatment. This prevents neurofeedback from gaining recognition and legitimacy. It also prevents many people from receiving treatment even though neurofeedback might be beneficial to them.

Proposed Solution: Research & Development:  Because treatment using neurotechnology is not accepted as a legitimate treatment by most insurance agencies and is thus not covered by most insurance, many patients will opt out of the treatment for monetary reasons. It is also possible that physicians may not suggest the treatment to patients if they know it will not be covered by insurance.  In order to remedy this, further research and development is required to establish treatments using neurotechnology as a legitimate treatment.

Barrier:  Privacy Concerns

Neurotechnologies have the potential to reveal the one thing that people have always been able to keep a secret: what they are thinking. Cognitive liberty refers to the right of individuals to control their own mental processes, cognition, and consciousness, including the use of various neurotechnologies. While there are significant benefits associated with neurotechnologies, they have the ability to invade the most biologically private aspect of our lives.  Because of this, it is necessary for scientists, citizens and policy makers alike to consider implications for privacy.

Proposed Solution: Law & Regulation:  In order to protect cognitive liberties and resolve privacy issues, laws and regulations need to be established for utilizing neurotechnology. As with any new technology, no prior regulations safeguard its use. As the world we live in changes, so must our laws and regulations to accommodate those changes.

Barrier:  Lack of Adoption & Diffusion

Currently, neurotechnologies are most prominent in the clinical setting but have yet to be adequately adopted and diffused to markets outside the clinical setting.

EMOTIV is attempting to market their headband to consumers in the same applications as Fitbits. EMOTIV expects users to be interested in tracking their brain activity throughout the day by wearing the headband in order to receive suggestions about their wellness via information gained from their daily brain activity.

We are skeptical of the expectation this company has that their consumers will want to wear this not-very-inconspicuous device around daily to monitor their brain wellness as consumers do with a Fitbit. For example, one reason Google Glass failed was because it wasn’t easily integratable into consumer’s lives. Users couldn’t see the need for or value in wearing this pair of odd-looking glasses in order to have a computer interface projected onto the lenses of the glasses. Similarly, it’s quite difficult to see users being willing to wear this obvious device all day so they can access information regarding their brain activity.

Proposed Solution:  Create a Strategy to Cross the Chasm:  The adoption and diffusion of innovation is based on a model pioneered by Everett Rogers. Rogers describes the critical characteristics that influence a customer’s potential adoption of a new innovation as well as the various categories of adopters over time as a new innovation diffuses through a market.  Geoffrey Moore adapted the theory of adoption and diffusion of innovations to high-technology products.  His adaptation modifies Roger’s traditional theory to account for the large gap, or chasm, that exists between the early market (innovators and early adopters) and the mainstream market (early majority, late majority, and laggards).  Although gaps exist between each category of adopters, the gap or chasm between the early market and mainstream market is more pronounced.  This is due to the many differences that exist in the buying motivations of visionaries rather than pragmatists.

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This adoption and diffusion of innovation can be viewed from the perspective of a businesses (such as EMOTIV)  selling to other businesses (B2B) and from the perspective of consumers.

Business Perspective

Neurotechnologies have been adopted by early adopters who use new technologies to gain a competitive advantage and revolutionize their (primarily clinical) industries.  Clinical industries had a vision for how the technology could revolutionize treatment protocols.

Unlike the early adopters, the early majority are practical consumers motivated by evolutionary changes to gain productivity enhancements. They are averse to disruption in operations and avoid risks by seeking out proven applications, reliable service, and results.  These customers are not likely to buy a new high-tech solution without a reference from trusted colleagues who often operate in the same industries or line of business and are also considered pragmatists who share the same buying motivations.

The lack of proven financial benefits to clinical practices for pragmatist adopters is a major reason why neurotechnologies are not widely adopted in industries outside the clinical setting.  Because research is still needed to demonstrate the more applied functions and applications of neurotechnologies, the early majority also do not see these technologies as proven and reliable.  This is especially true in industries outside the clinical setting such as automotive, gaming, entertainment, etc.  Neurotechnologies are simply not viewed as essential to their practice or line of business.

Consumer Perspective

From the consumer’s perspective, the early adopters are those consumers that are willing to wear the EMOTIV headwear around on a day-to-day basis.  They adopt and use the new technology to revolutionize their experience.  The benefit of the product is more important to them as is the notion of being first to use this.

In contrast to these early adopters who may not acknowledge or care that the headwear is not inconspicuous, the early majority users will care about this.  In addition, unlike the early adopters, the early majority seek more practical solutions and productivity enhancements in deciding whether to buy a new technology.  They seek out proven and reliable products and seek out reference from other consumers they identify with.

The Solution

Moore recommends a two-pronged approach to crossing the chasm and stimulating the diffusion process: the selection of a beachhead and the development of a whole product solution.

A beachhead is a single target market selected strategically from which to pursue other market segments within the mainstream market.  A good beachhead gives customers a compelling reason to buy and provides logical word-of-mouth relationships to adjacent segments.

One suggested beachhead for neurotechnologies is the Mental Wellness Community – those who are interested in using things like Muse to track and improve upon their own mental wellbeing. This segment would use neurotechnology to understanding the brain to make their own inferences the state of their brain.

Connected by logical word of mouth relationships are the entertainment industry and the tourism industry, which both of which could use neurotechnology to make inferences about their consumers.

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Focusing on the B2B market of neurotechnology would be beneficial to companies like EMOTIV who can offer a strong value proposition for business customers.  In contrast, companies like Muse are positioned to be more successful in B2C markets by expanding into products like the Lowdown Focus sunglasses.

The whole product solution includes all of the elements the customer needs in order for the technology to perform as promised.  The following diagram places the wearable neurotechnology such as Muse at the center, and surrounding the center are the elements required to use the Muse successfully.

Organizations and businesses such as rehab centers, hospitals, etc. customers would require the following elements:neuro 14

For instance, I actually had to consider the whole product solution when purchasing Muse for myself.  In order for me to purchase this product, I had to be convinced that I would be provided with the necessary support to get value out of the product.

  • The first step of that was neurofeedback. I purchased Muse through my neurologist’s office and was informed they would not sell me the headband if I did not first receive neurofeedback treatment. This was because their purpose for selling me the headband was to work in conjunction with my neurofeedback treatment and they believed I would not get much value out of the headband without first receiving treatment.
  • A smartphone with bluetooth is needed to connect to the Muse headband.
  • I also needed training on how to use the headband. I was given training by my neurologist’s office, but the app itself also walked me through extensive training on the use of the Muse app and the headband itself.
  • Use of Muse also requires an interpreter of the data. When I signed up for the Muse app which connects to my headband, I had to tell my neurologist the email which I used to sign up for it so he could track my progress and prompt me with suggestions on how to properly use the headband. After each meditation in Muse, the app takes me to a page which shows how well I did and how my session compared to previous sessions. Muse advocates “the journey” and does not seek to “push” their users, but rather to encourage them gently on how to improve the session. If I have had an especially calm session, I receive a slight push in the “right” direction.
  • Muse updates their app occasionally to continue giving users the most value as possible, which is another support aspect to getting the most out of the technology.
  • Finally, I was given a hard case to protect the headband. This has allowed me to travel with this expensive, fragile piece of technology and never have to worry about it being damaged.

How will neurotechnology achieve its full potential?

Current neurotechnologies give a large amount of insight into the mind and how the brain functions, but basic research is still needed to demonstrate the more applied functions and applications of these technologies.

Neurotechnologies are those technologies that allow us to understand, research, treat, and visualize the brain. They are well established in a clinical setting but have emerged in mainstream markets as well with much opportunity to expand. The future of neurotechnologies lie in how they are fundamentally applied and developed.  In order to reach its full potential, neurotechnologies must address the barriers of insurance, privacy, and the lack of adoption and diffusion mentioned in our report.

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