Can mental health be measured?

Can we track improvements? Or can we even monitor for signs of worsening?

In November, Dr Michael Keane, a Neuroscientist from the DCU based company Actualise gave a talk about using Neurofeedback to treat conditions like ADHD. Michael then talked about technologies available now that can radically scale mental tracking, that could be used for stress monitoring, to catch burnout or depression early or even to catch

The Brain as a Black Box

People often dismiss a child’s lack of attention or their bold behaviour as just acting up. But doing this brings with it negative connotations and even stigma – for the child, for the parents.

Viewing the brain using a device called the electroencephalogram (EEG) cap, a different picture of what is happening becomes clear.

 

 

When a child diagnosed with ADHD is distracted, parts of the brain that control attention (the executive control centre) have less reliable activation, and it is this pattern that can be the cause of the distraction.

That Which is Measured, Improves

Neurofeedback is the process of training parts of the brain to engage better. With ADHD, it’s the executive function centres and networks. The same logic applies for mood disorders. For example, in anxiety, areas of the brain responsible for the creation and maintenance of the anxiety response – for example, the amygdala – are trained. The training is not aimed at switching these areas off, but rather at helping them to function more reliably. The same logic applies in depression, panic disorder, emotional regulation issues etc.

As Michael said, the process is the same as training a puppy – by rewarding good behaviour. The ‘good behaviour’ in this case is when certain parts of the brain produce more desirable behaviour. The ‘reward’ is by making progress in a computer game – in this case; a racing car moves on a track.

Just like the addiction to slot-machines, the brain triggers dopamine hits every time they get a reward. This signals to the brain to do more of that behaviour – more activation of the brain leading to more engaging with their environment.

The remarkable thing is a client only needs 10-20 sessions on this device. A patient’s behaviour changes once their brain is working more optimally. They pay more attention than before. Teachers praise their attention. Classmates play with them more. Their environment is now giving them these dopamine hits from positive interactions.

Their environment becomes the Neurofeedback device.

 

Predict and Preventing Mental Health Issues

Neurofeedback is a fantastic tool – but it’s a reactive step, usually a step of last resort. If there is a slow cognitive decline – with burn-out, depression or even a disease like Alzheimer’s – it’s critical to get treatment as early as possible to reduce and reverse declines.

Dr Michael Kene has just started to work with the Singapore company Cognifyx to change that. With Cognifyx, it’s possible to monitor how the brain is functioning on an ongoing basis.

The product is smartphone based and uses a standard set of tools used by Psychologists and  Neuroscientists to measure brain function. Cognifyx is working on wearable devices also.

The tool comes with a support team monitoring results on the devices. Declines in brain function will alert the team to trigger a phone call. It may be something as simple as jet-lag or illness, but it could also be early stages of burnout. Or worse.

We can replace the ‘wait and see, come back in six months’ approach.

It’s not possible to get this level of measurement currently – but it can be critical. Burnout can lead to depression in six months. Alzheimer’s can start twenty years before there’s a diagnosis, and early treatment can have a huge impact in slowing the progression.

Cognifyx is expanding into other areas, including a range of corporate and Government applications.

Removing Stigma from Mental Health with Data

As Michael said, you wouldn’t ‘judge’ someone for having a broken leg. So why should we judge someone for ADHD, or depression or any other mental health-related disease – when you can see the data – or the reason behind the behaviour.

What was hidden to us before, EEG sheds light on. The brain is no longer a ‘black-box’. Conditions like ADHD are just symptoms of the brain not functioning optimally.

Top Tips to Improve Brain Function

We got to talk with Dr Michael after the event, asking what would he recommend all of us to improve our brain function and reduce chances of decline later in our lives.

The top three tips:

  • Sleep – get your 8 hours
  • Exercise – stimulates blood to the brain and boosts mood
  • Diet – Eat real foods, no processed foods. Inflammatory sugars and preservatives hit mood, energy and mental focus.

Conclusions

Mental health issues are not only devastating for people involved, but they’re incredibly expensive for society. Current treatments rely way too much on trial and error with drugs, or worse with just a wait and see approach (?).

Neurofeedback and apps like CognifyX are just the beginning of a very positive trend where we treat mental health issues with data-driven approaches.

We are only just beginning down this path, but it’s a very positive new approach to mental health

Note – Michael will be speaking again at the Actualise clinc on the 30th January in DCU. You can sign up here.

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