Below is an article from my column “Natural Selections” on Portfolio.com:
I‘m in a bathrobe clutching a stuffed otter trailing wires while seven strangers watch me climb into bed.
Trailing from the fuzzy animal’s rear end are two wires. One leads out of my hotel bedroom and into an anteroom where the people now saying good night have set up monitors and laptops. The other is attached to an electrode affixed to my forehead.
I’m at the Estancia resort in La Jolla, California, where researchers at a San Diego start-up company called NeuroVigil are investigating what my brain is doing during the one-third of my life that I spend asleep.
The founder of NeuroVigil is Philip Low, a young neuroscientist who also holds a chair at the Salk Institute, which sprawls out just to the north of the Estancia, abutting the beach and the Pacific Ocean.
Low and his team are experimenting with a prototype of a new invention called the iBrain, which uses a single electrode attached to the forehead that measures brain activity during sleep.
Most sleep-measurement devices are multiple electrode caps that need to be run in a controlled setting, such as a hospital. The iBrain, when it is finished, will be used in a person’s home—or, in my case, in the bedroom of this rather posh suite.
The finished iBrain will be wireless, says Low, and will report data during the night to NeuroVigil’s data centers via one’s own laptop, via the internet, or perhaps via the device itself.
But will the commercial version be imbedded in a stuffed otter, as this one is? Low says probably not; the otter was added at the last minute to protect the ungainly iBrain prototype from being squashed if I roll over in my sleep. Presumably, the real product will be smaller and less fragile.
NeuroVigil, which plans to sell the iBrain to researchers, physicians, hospitals, businesses, and consumers, will analyze the brain waves it picks up using a patented algorithm also developed by Low. The program, he says, uses grids to detect structural changes that occur in a sleeping person’s brain and can reveal neurological disorders.
“We are using sleep as a microscope to study brain activity,” Low said.
With long, wavy-black hair, a penchant for European-cut suits, and a charismatic intensity, Low came to the Salk in 2001 at the invitation of Nobel laureate Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA. Low and Crick worked together on sleep until Crick’s death in 2004.
Still in his twenties, Low finished his Ph.D. in 2007, which he said was just one page in length, with a very long footnote titled, “A New Way to Look at Sleep: Separation & Convergence.” Low is a fellow at the Crick-Jacobs Center
for Theoretical and Computational Biology at Salk.
When I met him, Low was getting a lot of publicity for using his iBrain technology to test brain waves in songbirds. Using some of his new algorithms, Low analyzed E.E.G.’s of zebra finches and discovered a previously unknown similarity between birdbrains and mammalian brains—periods of rapid-eye-movement (R.E.M.) sleep, slow-wave sleep (S.W.S.), transition stages, and quick E.E.G. transitions.
“No one thought that birds, which lack a neocortex, would show these patterns,” he said. His Chicago lab also was able to record patterns in the sleeping finch’s brains that were identical to when they were awake and singing, suggesting they might have been dreaming about singing. That finding may offer clues to how humans dream.
Low’s company also recently won $250,000 in seed funding from the annual West Coast 250K Venture Challenge offered by the Silicon Valley venture firm Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson. Low says he has turned down millions of dollars from venture capital firms and funded the company using credit cards. He has attracted several prominent scientists to its advisory board.
The company hopes to begin selling the iBrain within a year, and have not yet priced the device or their service. “We want lots of people to use this, so it won’t be too expensive,” says Low.
Low tells me that the iBrain technology and his algorithms could be used to detect not only neuro-abnormalities that can cause shifts in how the brain performs in EEGs much in advance of cognitive symptoms.
He believes the device will be added to the growing pantheon of diagnostic tools that range from cholesterol levels to genetic profiles, and that one day scanning brain waves with his portable device will be routine for everyone from transportation workers to soldiers.
He even sees applications for detecting pandemics and bioterrorism threats, although he wouldn’t elaborate, he says coyly, for proprietary reasons.
This was the first time they had tested the device outside of a hospital or a clinic, so they brought in traditional sleep-monitoring devices to make sure they were getting a strong signal from my snoozing brain.
Low worried that I would have trouble falling asleep with an electrode stuck on my head and connected to the fluffy otter. But he didn’t know how easily I can snooze. I fell asleep soon after they turned out the light, while the team gathered around the equipment in the anteroom.
Several weeks later, I received my results. I was normal except for a funny alpha wave that sometimes suggests alcoholism or a debilitating muscle disorder. But Low says that the wave pattern was more likely caused by the placement of the electrode. Here is NeuroVigil’s report on my brain while sleeping:
“Patient had a good Sleep Efficiency (92.7 percent). Sleep Onset Time was normal. Distribution of sleep stages was typical. … The patient is not likely to suffer from depression or sleep apnea. … Total wake time for the bedtime period was short. In-depth analysis of sleep stages using SPEARS [Low's algorithm] revealed no sign of pathologic brain rhythm generation.”
Taking this test was fun, though I wonder if this product could face some of the issues that confront genetic testing if employers, the government, or insurers use it in the wrong way to screen for abnormalities and behavioral quirks.
Low acknowledges the potential for abuse. “Like any test of this sort, we would need to protect people from abusing this technology,” he says.
I thought of one more use for the iBrain—dating services such as Match.com that offer an iBrain vetting of prospective dates. If this happens, however, I suggest losing the otter.