The Health Tech Hacking Our Nervous Systems

Anna Tamara
July 14, 2023
08 minutes
Health Tech and Neuroscience.
Health tech

Are we laying the ground for a new dawn of preventative healthcare?  

Our era of chronic stress comes at a cost.

Today’s stressors — including emotional stress, our ways of life, and environmental factors like toxins — are having a measurable impact on our collective health. Despite our wellness-obsessed society and medical ingenuities, illness both mental and physical is on the rise globally. Diagnoses of chronic illness, considered to be largely caused by the stressors above, have surged in the last decades. (In the US alone, the number of adults with major chronic conditions has increased by 25% over the last 10 years. And we can expect it to go up – chronic illness in the over 50s is projected to rise from 71 million in 2020 to 142 million by 2050.)

Modern medicine hasn’t quite caught up yet. As chronic illness increases, demand “threatens to overwhelm health systems,” the World Health Organisation warns. “The socioeconomic costs… make the prevention and control of these diseases a major development imperative for the 21st century.” In this landscape, a new frontier aims to stop us getting so sick in the first place. Through fleshing out a more holistic vision of human health. The health tech behind breakthroughs in this field include advancements in neuroscience and preventative healthcare. Broadly, these aim to help us better read, regulate and restore the human nervous system to health.

This fertile, emerging field is carving new paths to well-being.

Largely through exploring the connections between stress, the vagus nerve, the microbiome and other biomarkers, and their impact on our physical and mental well-being. Among this shift, a wide range of developments in health tech aims to get to the root of disease. Advancements in fields including neuro-mapping, nutrition and mind-body health tech are tackling our slow slide into sickness. With novel ways to hack the human operating systems – the brain, the mind-body and the biome – taking a beating from today’s world.

Leading the way is innovation in Vagus Nerve Stimulation.

Landmark health tech is in development as part of the US Government’s prestigious global study REVEAL (Research Evaluating Vagal Excitation and Anatomical Links). The three-year, $21M study will collect and analyse neural data – the first and largest database of its kind. It’s the start of uncovering the potential for neural therapies in treating chronic diseases including heart disease, epilepsy, and various inflammatory conditions.

As part of the study, Cambridge’s BIOS Health is behind pioneering deep tech in ‘Vagal mapping’. With AI-powered neural biomarker analysis, measured via pacemaker-sized devices on the vagus nerve, they can now read nerve fibers firing in real time. Mapping the communication between the vagus nerve and the key organs, it offers a first look at what technology wasn’t previously fast enough to capture (these reflexes change in milliseconds).

Neuromodulation therapies in development today apply similar approaches, but target nerves in different ways with implantable devices. Such as SetPoint Medical’s bioelectronic device for rheumatoid arthritis, and Saluda Medical’s spinal cord stimulation to treat chronic pain. However, the downsides of these technologies include their invasive nature and bulky implants. Such as power sources and wires that must be attached to the patient alongside the device.

Looking ahead, the new dawn of ‘neurome-tech’ explored as part of REVEAL has the potential to prevent and treat such diseases by rewiring the signals sent from the brain to the body. Uncovering the neural activity personal to you could transform targeted therapies. And lay the foundations for the future of medicine.

(In another field, this dynamic – AI-powered breakthroughs aimed at the human brain – is flipped on its head by Melbourne’s Cortical Labs. The Australian start-up is building computer chips powered by human brain cells, called DishBrain. Among many mind-bending applications in AI, these could be used in the future to test novel drugs for brain diseases.)

Mainstream medicine is only beginning to recognise the powerful role of the brain in the development and treatment of chronic disease. For now, more holistic solutions, zooming out to the bigger picture of human health, offer another way forward.

The next generation of digital health tools will be increasingly used to spot, treat and prevent ill health. A new class of ‘clinical grade’ wearable devices, for example, able to measure physiological signals with high accuracy, could detect early signs of cognitive decline or neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s. Data captured by such devices, when combined with biomedical data, electronic health records, and genome and microbiome sequencing, might just offer a closer look at the complexity of human health and disease. To help us better understand our collective health and enable new solutions.

In the mental health space, new bio-therapeutic devices can both diagnose and offer relief. Senseye claims to be the world's first diagnostic platform for objectively assessing mental health. With an app and device measuring biomarkers, they’re starting with the eye physiology present in PTSD. On the treatment side, Sana Health’s mask and headphones can deliver therapeutic audiovisual stimulation responsive to heart rate variability, now approved to treat PTSD, fibromyalgia, neuropathic pain and anxiety.

For day-to-day mental health monitoring, predictive analytics could be another force for change.

Start ups and researchers are exploring the potential of digital mood trackers: machine learning predictions of well-being that catch drifts in emotional state. These measure behaviour like speed of typing and voice note recognition to detect people who are becoming anxious, low in mood, or feeling lonely or self-critical. Apps like Mood Tracker already use manual inputs to help diagnose and prevent acute bipolar relapses. Now, researchers from the Center for Healthy Minds are working on ways to embed mood tracking into our online activity and leverage AI to deliver support when a person needs it most. For example, stepping in to soothe anxiety in real time with personalised well-being interventions like a breathing exercise. Offering a welcome balm for the effects of tech on our psyches, too.  

For those suffering today, digital therapeutics are better empowering people to heal.

Such as those promoting neuroplasticity and biopsychosocial models of understanding illness. Apps like Curable and Nerva use the latest neuroscience research and mindbody tools to help people regulate their nervous systems and recover from conditions like chronic pain, depression and IBS.

On the topic of gut health, we’re also starting to understand the critical role of the microbiome and nutrition in mental health, overall health and prevention of chronic disease. Health tech innovation here includes Pragma Bio’s use of real-world data and synthetic biology to find microbiome-fueled treatments for complex chronic illness. DayTwo is also targeting the microbiome with database-informed solutions to change the outlook of chronic diseases – their patented AI can predict personal blood sugar responses in people with type 2 diabetes, before they’ve taken a bite.

There’s a lot of work to do to edge us toward better collective health.

It will require more research, support, education and healthcare buy-in in the years to come. Even then, our new tools for health continue to compete with the demands of our current ways of living. And such biopsychosocial approaches to care – looking at the full picture of human health and empowering people to treat themselves – are useful to complement proper understandings and treatment delivered by traditional healthcare. Where there is still improvement to be made.

So, the future where we can shift attitudes toward health and apply tools to prevent disease on a wide scale may seem a far reach today. But these innovations, and the work of those carving new paths to treatment, help us see how we might already have more control over our vitality than we think.