There's nothing wrong with a young volunteer's brain, but if there were, engineer Joe Malo might hear it first. By tapping on the head very lightly, Malo can see the how the brain signals are disturbed. That's because the headset a volunteer wears is actually a scanning device. It's based on technology used to interpret sonar. The sensors are detecting pressure waves delivered to her skull by the natural flow of blood into her brain.
"What we're measuring is subtle variations on top of that major pulse signal and that subtle variation includes details of how an aneurism may wiggle and wobble when it's activated," said Paul Lovoi, Ph.D.
Lovoi is CEO of Mountain View start-up Jan Medical. He says the device is sensitive enough to quickly pinpoint the type and location of individual strokes, potentially heading off permanent damage from loss of oxygen to the brain.
"Our system is fast, it can get a diagnosis in something under 90 seconds," said Lovoi.
After settling on the sonar principle, Lovoi turned to experts from the U.S. Navy's submarine program and their decades of experience in differentiating waves generated by sound and pressure.
"It expands the blood vessels, it sends out a pressure wave through the brain matter, through the fluid, through the skull, and through the skin and we pick up that pulse wave, that vibration," said Malo.
The team tested the stroke application in clinical trials at Johns-Hopkins. Then after that research was completed, they turned the device toward another target -- concussions.
In a study with Bay Area high school football players, researchers from Stanford used the sensor headset to identify patterns associated with concussions.
"So with our 29 players we ended up with four concussions and use that to develop a signature which we were able to validate through the rest of the trial," said Lovoi.
That raises the possibility of a portable unit that could save lives on the field and off, using technology perfected miles beneath the sea.
A large stroke trial testing the device is expected to get underway at UCSF in the next few months. If that data is positive, Jan Medical hopes to apply for FDA clearance as early as next year.
Written and produced by Tim Didion