Scientists track patients' brain waves from home

April 6, 2011 7:37:00 PM PDT
A technology developed in the Bay Area could soon move some research out of the lab and into the home. A portable monitor allows scientists to scan a patient's brain waves in a whole new way.

With just a blink of her eye, a volunteer wearing a headset communicates with a portable brain wave monitor. The electrical signals from her firing neurons appear as a blip on the screen, relayed by a device called the Mind Band.

"We created this so that researchers are able to look at both the raw brain wave information, which has much more in depth information, as well as the algorithms that we currently have available," explains Tansy Brook from San Jose-based NeuroSky.

NeuroSky is known for miniaturizing the diagnostic tool known as an electroencephalogram, or EEG. The brain wave headsets have been used for several years for games and educational programs, but recently the scaled down technology has found its way into medical research.

"This makes it easy for a clinicians and researcher assistants, as well, to be able to use the technology inexpensively and also out of a lab environment," said Brook.

Dr. Seiji Nishino is a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Center, where overnight stays can cost several thousand dollars. He recently tested the Mind Band, in part to determine the feasibility of gathering research data from patients at home. His team used an algorithm to identify specific brain waves associated with sleep cycles.

"When the brain sleeps, many different kinds of brain waves appear," he says.

Including the waves of R.E.M. -- the deep sleep state associated with dreaming and heightened activity in the brain. Nishino says his team was able to accurately monitor four stages, from light sleep to R.E.M. He believes the device could eventually help people better regulate their sleep.

"We can make [the] subject wake up at the best time, in the morning, judged by the sleep stage," says Nishino.

The benefits of charting brain waves could stretch beyond sleep. Clinical trials are under way using the Mind Band to research disorders ranging from migraines to epilepsy.

The research system costs around $1,000 including both the mind band and a program that allows it transfer data directly to some commonly used research software.

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