When Cori Lathan’s company, AnthroTronix, was tasked by DARPA with building technology to help diagnose traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder in war zones, she didn't immediately envision technology's promising use in the civilian market.
AnthroTronix’s app, DANA (Defense Automated Neurocognitive Assessment), is "designed to give quick insights, almost like a thermometer for brain function. It takes five minutes to run through, and feels kind of like an Android-based brain game. We then added on more and more capability for the contiunuum of care, like complete diagnostics, psychological tests, and memory tests, to make it part of a full fleet of tests a physician could deploy."
Leveraging the answers respondents give, their response time, and even balance and movement information picked up by the smartphone’s sensors, DANA—which runs on Android phones and tablets—gives feedback a medical professional can then use to help potentially diagnose brain injuries or PTSD.
DANA is currently being tested in multiple Defense Department-funded clinical trials. One study done in conjunction with the VA in Hawaii is using it to test for signs of PTSD in returning veterans. Another study at Johns Hopkins University focuses on treatment of severe depression and is trying to see if the software can pick up indicators of it in the brain. Then there’s a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that's testing DANA on patients with sports-related concussions.
Lathan said that the Pentagon is interested in sports concussions because traumatic brain injuries are difficult to study in war zones, and analogs are needed to understand cognitive function and other effects in trials. "Sports are obvious," she added, "Because unfortunately you know you will get a certain amount of concussions from them. The other place besides sports where you can observe this is people coming through an emergency room, which presents its own issues."
Although the technology was designed for the battlefield, DANA is now being promoted for potential use in rehabilitation centers, hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry, and for potential use by caregivers. Over the next few months, AnthroTronix is expected to announce several use cases for DANA designed for caregivers of elderly parents or other loved ones. "The caregiver tends to forget about themselves," Lathan said. "We want them to be able to track their own wellness as well as that of their loved one."
Lathan has a CV that most engineers would envy: A veteran of the MIT Media Lab, Lathan was a former bioengineering professor at Catholic University. While she still serves as an advisor to the university, she switched over to the entrepreneurial side of things when Maryland-based AnthroTronix was founded.
"Being an entrepreneur is so much fun that I never went back. I’m still on great terms with Catholic University bioengineering, and serve on their advisory board," says Lathan, adding that now she can "find a real need and focus on solving that need using technologies like wearable sensors, and virtual reality. With academia, the focus is on doing fundamental research questions, but it's a question of depth instead of breadth—which is fantastic, and not a bad thing."
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that DANA was developed with funding from DARPA. While AnthtroTronix has received DARPA funding in the past, DANA was developed with funding from the Defense Department as a whole.