The brave new world of monitoring sleep for stress, and a visual test to spot early-stage Alzheimer’s

We’re learning more about how Alzheimer’s affects the brain — and when — by looking into it, but what if there is a way to more quickly spot early signs of the disease by observing how the brain looks at the world?

The premise of a technology developed by Neurotrack is deceptively simple:  Subjects are given a computer-based test that measures how well they remember images on a screen via an eye-tracking device. An algorithm analysis detects Alzheimer’s in relatively early stages, before behavioral symptoms appear and allowing early intervention. The program was developed by neuroscientists from Emory University and the University of Washington, who brought on an entrepreneur to help them bring their idea to market.

Testing so far bodes very well for its predictive value: Of subjects who scored below 50 percent, all went on to develop full-blown Alzheimer’s within six years. The test has other big advantages: It’s noninvasive, requires no special training to administer and is easy and relatively inexpensive to disseminate.

Neurotrack, one of the companies represented at TEDMED’s 2013 Hive, finished Series A funding with $2 million from Founders Fund and Social+Capital, and has begun the long trek toward FDA approval.

Elli Kaplan, co-founder and CEO, says the road to recognition hasn’t been easy for a start-up that grew from academia and continues to progress independently – versus flying under the wing of a pharmaceutical sponsor – but it also has creative advantages. An idea developed by a smaller group is less likely to get lost in the shuffle of a larger organization, and to be discarded if it doesn’t fit a predestined outcome.

“For us, if it doesn’t work for ‘x’ it might work for ‘y.’ We’re a young company, so we think instead, ‘We put all this work into this, so if something’s not working how can we change our plan to bring things to life?” she says.

Stress, the Ill Felt ‘Round the World

If you’re stressed and you know it, raise your hand.

You probably can read stress signals, especially thanks to attention from health care providers and the media. Your breathing becomes more rapid; your muscles rigid; your skin flushes. And even if you don’t notice, there are great gadgets out there that can clue you in.

shutterstock_65065507But what about the other, less hidden symptoms, like poor sleep and varied speech patterns?

SOMA Analytics, a London-based start-up, has developed a smartphone app that tracks these less-noted symptoms. Named after the Greek work for body, the SOMA app monitors movement patterns at night (yes, you have to sleep with your phone), and voice and typing during the day. It then offers interventions tailored to observed needs. For example, not all sleepers are the same; some do better waking early, some sleeping fewer hours; thanks to genetics. There’s no way to scientifically know which group you’re in, short of spending a weekend at a sleep lab.

Co-founder Johann Huber and two friends came up with the idea after watching a fourth friend slide incrementally into depression.

“We had the feeling there was something going on with him, and in between [times we saw him] he got bags under his eyes and had incredible mood swings. He himself didn’t feel it. Humans don’t notice gradual changes over time,” Huber says.

Why not, then, invent something that does and couple it with something so many of us own and know how to use – the smartphone?  The group worked with a number of hospitals to refine its product, which is already in market and geared towards businesses with a concern for employees’ productivity and well-being.  It stacks up well against metrics gathered in sleep labs.

A native of Germany, Huber said the company moved to London for what he says is a business environment more fertile for start-ups. The world seems ready for SOMA; the company was one of 50 companies selected to join TEDMED’s Hive innovation showcase in 2013 and was one of only 20 Digital Health startups on the continent to be part of the Johnson & Johnson Digital Health Masterclass.

With experience in so many countries and it’s technology, will SOMA’s leadership be able to determine who is less stressed, Americans or Europeans?

Pondering, Huber says, “I studied in the U.S. and I had the impression than Americans were far more laid back than Germans especially,” he says, but allows that intense U.S. work schedules may flip the equation.

“The big question is — who is more productive? If it helps productivity to rest, then I would strongly argue for testing that,” he says.