The team at BrainWaveBank are hoping that a neoprene cap with a series of electrodes on the inside can become a tool for helping diagnose neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression faster and more accurately.

“Brain disorders have been hard to measure objectively.”

“The challenge of trying to understand brain disorders has always been that they have been hard to measure objectively. It often comes down to asking patients how they feel, which has all sorts of problems,” says Brian Murphy, founder and chief scientific officer of BrainWaveBank.

More objective techniques for judging what is going on in the brain are either invasive , such as blood and spinal fluid samples, or clunky such as electroencephalography (EEG) machines.

“EEG machines that can measure brain activity have been around for a long time but they have been expensive and difficult to use, involving a lot of sticky gel to attach the electrodes,” says Murphy.

The BrainWaveBank team have made a “dry” version — no sticky gels needed — that is portable and able to be produced in large enough quantities to make it affordable.

The cap can be used, for example, to detect the areas of the brain that are activated when a patient plays a particular game on an electronic device. Games have already been widely used to assess people for early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and memory function, but Murphy says that the cap will make these assessments more accurate.

“The reason the EEG machine is interesting is because the brain is very good at compensating. One part can be optimised for a particular task but if that is impaired, other areas can take over. That is why it can be difficult to diagnose Alzheimer’s early, as the brain slowly degenerates, for a time the other parts can work around it.”

With the EEG cap, however, a non-functioning part of the brain could be detected much earlier.

Another use for the device could be to determine whether a particular medication for depression is having an impact much more quickly.

“It can take months to settle on the right depression drugs for a particular patient.”

“There might be 10 different candidate drugs for treating depression and it can take months to settle on the right therapy for a particular patient,” says Murphy. A peek at what a drug is doing to brain activity could be a shortcut.

Belfast-based BrainWaveBank and just raised €1.1m to help get the device through medical certification. Funding came from Par Equity and supported by current investors Techstart Ventures, Clarendon Fund Managers and Angel CoFund.

Clients for the moment are university and teaching hospitals and pharmaceuticals companies — it is just about to launch a trial with Alzheimer’s patients in Australia, together with a pharmaceutical company.

Eventually, though, Murphy would like to get the device into more widespread use, at doctors surgeries and maybe even sell them to consumers keen to monitor their own moods or sleep patterns.

“But for that we will need extra funding, so we are looking for partners we could work with,” says Murphy.

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