A neuroscientist in Surrey, BC, says he's figured out a way to measure and track the human brain's "vital signs"—patterns in brain waves that could one day become a crucial marker of health and disease, just like blood pressure, pulse rate, and temperature, he believes.
In fact, in the near future, Ryan D'Arcy told me, all doctors should be monitoring brain waves, alongside more standard clinical vital signs of patients, healthy and otherwise, via electroencephalogram, or EEG, which monitors electrical activity of the brain. D'Arcy made this case in a recent article in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
The work still has a long way to go. For now, it's more about establishing baselines of what a "healthy brain" might look like. And EEG, which is used to diagnose disorders like narcolepsy, Alzheimer's, and certain brain disorders, is an imperfect tool. Because it relies on electrodes placed on the scalp, it can't get a very detailed picture of what's happening in every part of the brain, and the signals can be distorted by noise.
But EEG is accessible, portable, and inexpensive—and that means a lot.
D'Arcy and a research team at his NeuroTech Lab, based at Surrey Memorial Hospital, say they've designed a way to quantify and measure brain waves based on a scale of 30, enabling doctors or scientists to track them over time. (A score of 30 is healthy.)
"In the last ten years, there's been a proliferation of portable EEG devices," said D'Arcy, a professor at Simon Fraser University. "The challenge is, how to extract useful information from them?"
Brain activity is usually only measured after a trauma like a car accident or concussion, or through the progression of disease. And there hasn't been a standard way to track a person's brain waves. Testing for consciousness in brain-injured patients is heavily subjective, and can be misdiagnosed as a result: An estimated 43 percent of patients who qualify as "vegetative" are misdiagnosed, as D'Arcy pointed out.
D'Arcy's new system isn't necessarily intended to help those with brain injuries, or at least, not only them. It's about tracking and monitoring healthy people, too—really anyone, just like the way blood pressure is used. (An earlier invention, the Halifax Consciousness Scanner, was designed to assess brain activity after injury.)
"We're missing a vital sign," he told me. "We're missing [the equivalent of] 120-over-80 for your brain."
The platform he and his team are developing to monitor brain vital signs, called NeuroCatch, is multiplatform, D'Arcy told me. "We had to make sure it could [work with] any EEG system," and not just one device. "As the world creates new brain wave recording technologies, we can deploy this to any one of them."
NeuroCatch runs a five-minute program that presents auditory stimuli (words or sounds, but a visual component will be added later, he said) to the person being tested, then analyzes the data and prepares a report for smartphone or tablet.
It sounds like a neat idea, but what do you do with this "brain vital sign" once you've got it? Studies have shown how remarkably plastic the human brain can be, but it's hard to know where to take this right now, at least in healthy patients. People with high blood pressure might be advised to cut salt from their diets.
But what about those with less-than-optimal brain waves? What's to be done?
"I guess when you discover a yardstick, that's the question," he acknowledged.
Having a way to quantify and monitor brain wave activity, D'Arcy believes, will open up more research into technologies or other treatments. The first step is tracking it—our brain waves are just another vital sign, he believes, of health and disease.