2015 SharpBrains Virtual Summit

Yannick RoyConferences, EventsLeave a Comment

In November (17th-19th) SharpBrains held its Virtual Summit about “Monitoring & Enhancing Brain Health in the Pervasive Neurotechnology Era.” The SharpBrains Virtual Summit is, as you might guess, a virtual (online) conference where the speakers give their presentation (powerpoint style) while talking over the slides. A side chat was curated by Alvaro Fernandez to allow questions and interaction with the speaker.

The virtual summit had it’s own division of topics for grouping the different speakers (see agenda), but I’ll break it down in a different way here. I’ll break it down into the following 4 main categories:

  1. Brain & Cognitive Training
  2. Wearables, Consumer & DIY
  3. Brain Health (healthcare)
  4. Neurotech Field & Trends

Click here for the full agenda of the event and here for a list of key references from the speakers (created by SharpBrains).

Alvaro Fernandez started the conference by reminding us that we should keep in mind not to look at the field and the market as it is today, but how it will be in couple years from now. As illustrated beautifully in many of SharpBrains’ infographics like this one, M. Fernandez showed us how the patents & grants trend has just entered the curve of what could be described as a hockey stick. He describes the pervasive neurotechnology as being non-invasive, scalable and potentially ubiquitous, combining neuro training, neuro monitoring, brain stimulation & electroencephalography.

The conference had a good mix of speakers covering pretty much the whole spectrum of neurotechnology. From mindfulness to brain mapping to brain stimulation. From research to industry. From medical to consumer. From business to science.

You can’t have a brain conference without talking about BRAIN Initiative & the Human Connectome Project, but in this one we also had someone from the Virtual Brain project, which I’m following closely (not only because it’s a Canadian initiative!)

Let’s just jump right in… (this recap is not exhaustive and is not intended to reconstruct the whole 3 days, but simply my own opinion and what I took away from the conference – and still remember 2 weeks later)  


Brain & Cognitive Training

Cognitive training for sports and peak performance is definitely on the rise, there is no doubt about that. Some even compared brain fitness market with the body fitness one. Are we gonna have brain gyms? Maybe not, but we already have a lot of brain fitness apps and online tools. The trend will certainly not decrease in the coming decade.

Because neurotechnology is not only about neuro & tech, but also about cognition and behavior, we had talks about mindful leadership program and the positive effects of a growth mindset. “Neuroscience” is making is way in the C-level training programs, sometimes controversially, trying to teach things like the flow state and stress management. Interesting field to follow in this very competitive economy!

Mindset Works gave us 3 key takeaway about having a growth mindset.

  1. Learn that abilities can change. (born vs made)
  2. Learn about how to improve.
  3. Model learning and foster a learning community. (couldn’t agree more with this one… since I started NeuroTechX…)

We had some talks from companies like Fit Brains, PeakCogniFit and of course, Lumosity (Lumos Labs).

I loved the point from Peak “get people to take ownership in the cognitive well-being”. I believe that like any new field, you need not to impose the field and your product, but start by changing and even creating the culture around that new field. Take the gym and crossfit exemple. Over 10 years ago, the body “culture” wasn’t what it is today… How lucrative is that business today? (I don’t want to open a debate about healthcare and weight lifting and crossfit, though, I’m just talking about the market size) With aging population and the recent proofs that our brain remains plastic as we age, we might see a new brain fitness culture emerge.

Brain stimulation a very hot topic in neurotechnology these days. From research labs to clinics to industry to DIY enthusiasts, brain “zapping” is now everywhere. Roy Hamilton, from LCNS gave us a glimpse of that trendy field.

In order to assess cognitive training or brain stimulation, we need tools & online platforms to do so. This is why we see more and more online tools to test, to run studies and experiments as the technology and the cognitive training starts getting out of the labs and clinics towards a consumer and even DIY model. Brainbaseline Lab, MyBrainTest and WebNeuro are some of the examples mentioned during the virtual summit. If you navigate through the DIY tDCS community on reddit, you’ll also find lots of these tools for online assessment of different cognitive metrics (working memory, reaction time, etc.)

Some key references (provided by SharpBrains):


Wearables, Consumer & DIY

I won’t go in depth of the wearables, consumer & DIY talks (because you have / will have a lot of this information on this website through different posts). I’d like to highlight Graeme Moffat’s presentation from InteraXon. Graeme walked us through the importance of new devices like the Muse to do mass-scale (hundreds and thousands of people) experiment very quickly and at low cost. This aspect is very interesting and I believe, will have a major impact in neuroscience studies in years to come, as the sample size is often criticized for being too small. He talked about the alpha peak study they did with McMaster university where they could compare the alpha peak across different populations (age, sex, etc.) with a large sample size.

SapienLabs also talked about the work they do using the Emotiv Epoc, recording baseline activity with closed eyes on large sample size (couple hundreds).

Conor Russomanno from OpenBCI talked about his new kickstarter campaign, which brings the cost of open source brain-computer interface devices to a whole new level of $99! What OpenBCI is doing for the field by empowering the next generation of neuro-engineers is simply remarkable. Rather than using the “wow” factor and the novelty of the field to put extra bucks in their pocket, OpenBCI is working hard to educate and empower makers, engineers and even experts. The ripple effects of such an initiative will be very significant in few years from now when we’ll be looking back to understand what accelerated the pace of neurotechnologies.

Some key references (provided by SharpBrains):


Health & Brain

I want to start by highlighting the Virtual Brain Project (Toronto based initiative) combining DTI, Anatomical, BOLD and EEG data. See their 2015 paper published in NeuroImage accessible here.

We also had Advanced Brain Monitoring talking about their daytime and nighttime FDA approved solutions. A company that has a sustained growth for the past couples years. Keep an eye on them!

Walter Greenleaf from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford had an interesting talk about the aging problem that will drastically increase the number of people with age related diseases and how revolutionizing healthcare with technology is important (crucial). He pointed out how we need to re-invent and/or digitalize medical devices using big data & mobile approaches with emerging solutions like 2Net from Qualcomm Life, Google Fit & Apple HealthKit. He discussed about the importance of VR in healthcare, from serious gaming to surgeon training, pointing out to research showing that VR can help treating mental disorders ranging from PTSD to addictions. Very interesting talk!

Obviously “brain health” is the biggest area of research in neurotechnology. Even if I don’t go in depth with this post. Not to forget that public funding goes mainly in health related projects.

Some key references (provided by SharpBrains):


Trends & Neurotech Field

It was easy to feel that cognitive training is on the rise. That video games for cognitive training will become increasingly popular as the science starts to back them, thanks to Adam Gazzaley and others. Brain Stimulation looks promising, but is still very early and not well understood let alone mastered. That being said, the potential being very interesting, more money than ever is going in that field, which makes me very optimistic and believing that we’ll do lot of progress in the coming years, trying to unlock that potential. Mindfulness, meditation, stress reduction, flow state, etc. is now well incrusted in our vocabulary as brain imaging keep showing the benefits.

Some of the privacy & neuroethics issues were discuss, but that was definitely not the main focus of the summit. I would have liked a panel discussion about the topic, including giant corp. and open source minded people. (a bit of heat, why not?)

Dr. Peter Reiner was the one who touched the subject the most (unless I missed something!) – see his blog here : Tech­nolo­gies of the extended mind: Impli­ca­tions for pri­vacy of thought

Future is awesome!

Despite all the actual limitation, we can feel that we decided to take the quest of understanding the brain.

It is hard to put a timeline and a budget on the biggest challenge ever attempted, but the passion and the will to do so is certainly not lacking.

Some key references (provided by SharpBrains):


Summary

Special thanks to Alvaro Fer­nan­dez for the quality of the speaker, the quality of their presentation, the overall quality of the audio/video and the quality of post summit material (key references, recordings, etc.)

BrainSummit_SharpBrains

I will also summarize using Thomas R. Insel, MD (NIH) conclusion.

  • Hype/Hope usually drive new technologies (e.g. gene therapy) including those that ultimately prove effective.
  • For complex problems, magic bullets (e.g. drugs or cognitive training) are unlikely to be effective alone.
  • There is no short-cut to rigorous science – unbiased RCTs looking at effect size, generalization, durability are essential to demonstrate value.

Networking is key

Lets face it, the price of a conference is not only for the talks themselves, but the networking, the connections you make, from potential colleagues to new friends. As one might expect, the “networking” session is very different when hold in a chat box. I don’t have the magic answer to how that could be improved, but it definitely felt like something was lacking from such an event -the interaction with people. Could a “speed dating” with video calls work? (I’m just throwing ideas here) You obviously want to limit the time you spend in a boring & fruitless conversation while maximizing the high potential ones. What if you could click a button to be part of the speed dating with tags of interest and then you get a google hangout link that last for 5 minutes, then the chat closes. At 4:30 you better exchange emails or click the button “send my business card” if you want to continue the discussion later on. I was just throwing the first idea on top of my head, but would like to invite you to send me (or even directly to SharpBrains) your ideas and comment about how to maximize interactions in a virtual conference!

Price matters

I definitely don’t want to undermine the excellent work that Alvaro Fernandez put in the event by saying that the price might be a little high for a lot of people who would love to attend such a virtual conference (most of whom are PhD students in relevant fields from all over the world). But I also believe that the field can very much benefit from inspiring the next generation of neuro-engineers with events like this one, if it was a bit more accessible.

All in all, what impressed me the most with the conference is post event, when we received all the slides, the videos, the chat sessions, etc., in a very digestible way. Very well organized and professional. (it definitely explains a part of the price!)

I’ll leave you with Anu Acharya’s poem: 10 Brain Trans­form­ers: A Poem

If you want to see what happened on Twitter during the event : #sharpbrains2015

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Yannick Roy

Yannick Roy

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