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The science (and business) of not losing your mind

A new cohort of cognitive health startups aims to marry research and software to help fix the mind.

The science (and business) of not losing your mind
[Source illustrations: Elysart/iStock; Jolygon/iStock]

If you lose your mind, you lose your identity. Many of us, now at, ahem, a certain age fear dementia. And we fear diseases associated with a decline in memory even more if we have had a family member go through it. That existential fear—for ourselves and for those we love—has supercharged the cognitive health segment of the $10 trillion global healthcare market.

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But there is a huge difference between successful neuroscience companies and successful neuroscience, and many people have spent millions of dollars on cognitive cures that haven’t panned out.

Fear is a great motivator. It’s also a brilliant sales tactic. Recently, some “brain” companies promised too much, based on too little science. “Brain training” company Lumosity, for example, paid $2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it had “preyed on consumer’s fears about age-related cognitive decline.” (An additional $50 million judgment against Lumosity parent Lumos Labs was suspended due to the company’s financial condition).

Biotech and other healthcare firms have typically eschewed the Silicon Valley mantras “move fast and break things,” or “fake it ’til you make it.” (It’s that kind of grow first, ask questions later, mentality that leads to companies such as Theranos.) Real science takes time and focus (and double-blind trials). That’s why neuroscientists listen less to Mark Zuckerberg and more to Hippocrates, who counseled “First, do no harm.”

That’s not to say that digital technologies like the ones Silicon Valley is famous for can’t play an important role in health. A 2018 study concluded that internet-delivered lifestyle interventions could assist in the prevention or delay of Alzheimer’s disease. But credible neurotech companies need to be backed by substantive science and concrete findings, which may explain why it is only now that we’re seeing research transferred into commercial enterprises.

AlterEgo is an AI-enabled headset developed at MIT that can translate internal vibrations sent from the brain to the tongue or larynx, permitting a machine to speak words out loud that the wearer can’t. Elon Musk’s Neuralink has created an implantable brain-machine interface, which may allow people with paralysis to control smartphones and TVs with their minds (via a wireless connection); human trials have now begun.

But the perhaps the biggest opportunity to effect change comes in the area of neurotech for dementia and related illnesses. An estimated 70% of dementia stems from Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts some 5.8 million Americans—that’s one in 10 people over the age of 65. Women are more predisposed than men to contract Alzheimer’s, America’s sixth leading cause of death. Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the U.S. an estimated $290 billion, and by 2050, $1.1 trillion.

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Some of the latest research around prevention and treatment of dementia centers on neuroplasticity, understanding the brain’s ability to change throughout one’s life. Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and protégé of neuroscience pioneer Marian Diamond, has spent her career looking at the brain and cognitive abilities, including the role that exercise can play in improving memory. Suzuki’s 2018 TED talk on the brain-changing effects of exercise was the second most-popular of the year. (Full disclosure, Suzuki is a client of my firm.)

Recently she founded BrainBody, a neurotech company that works with gyms and assisted living facilities to offer individualized cognitive health strategies and personalized physical workouts. The company marries science and infotech, collecting biodata from devices such as FitBits and Apple Watches, and cross references that information with neurodata gathered through cognitive assessments on a smartphone before and after exercise. “Many of us have an intuitive sense that moving our bodies is good for our brain,” Suzuki tells me. “What people don’t realize is these beneficial effects of movement on the brain are not only immediate but quantifiable. ”

A growing number of startups are seeking to address this next frontier of health. Their success will depend not on promises but on their ability to show positive, scientifically validated results. But if they can prove their worth, the social—and commercial—opportunity is immense: consider that by 2030, all baby boomers, the most health-conscious cohort to date, will be over the age of 65.

And living healthier and longer, of course, is the ultimate hack.

Alexandra Stanton is the CEO of Empire Global Ventures LLC, a New York City-based international business development firm that assists companies in complex and untested markets.

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