Philip Low still recalls not getting a happy birthday wish from his father when he turned 10. That day, the police had arrested him for threatening someone with a weapon. his father was then pardoned, when it became clear that the sleeping drug Halcion may have contributed to his aggressive and erratic behavior. The FDA has since issued warnings on this class of sedative-hypnotic drugs and their potential for psychiatric side effects.
That brutal experience left a mark on Low, now 31, who went on to invent a faster, cheaper way of diagnosing sleep disorders, and to assess the potential side effects of neurological drugs before they hit the market. he says his miniaturized version of an electroencephalography (EEG) delivers results that are as good as a traditional EEG in analyzing brain activity. Low, who’s still securing his patents, hasn’t published peer-reviewed studies involving clinical trials, and his device has yet to be approved by the FDA.
That hasn’t prevented Roche from signing on with his start-up, San Diego-based NeuroVigil. The Swiss pharmaceutical giant is basically paying for proof of concept of Low’s EEG, the iBrain. It hopes to detect the impact of drugs on the brain in patients with neurological diseases, and use unusual brain signals as potential biomarkers associated with harmful side effects. Roche is currently testing drugs for Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and depression.
For pharmaceutical companies constantly hunting for ways to improve their dismal chances of getting a drug to market, it could be one more tool in their arsenal. “If you can examine how a brain reacts physiologically, it could greatly simplify drug trials,” says Andrew Leuchter, a psychiatrist at UCLA. Leuchter who has consulted for Merck and Eli Lilly, says that those companies have used “pharmaco EEG” to determine what kind of effects a drug can have on the brain. so have Pfizer and AstraZeneca. In a study published last year, Leuchter found that a biomarker in the frontal lobe could predict with high accuracy the effectiveness of the anti-depressant Lexapro after one week. That may be useful information for drug makers, since it usually takes eight weeks or more for anti-depressants to kick in.
This past February, Low organized an ambitious conference on Alzheimer’s and “neurotechnologies” in Monaco, not far from where he grew up in the south of France. he thinks his EEG can readily help in finding the neural tipping point at which people with mild cognitive impairment switch over to Alzheimer’s, in the hopes of catching the disease in its early stages.
This month, Ruth O’Hara a neuroscientist at Stanford University started using the iBrain to study the type and range of sleep disorders in 100 children suffering from autism. Disruptions during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage which plays a role in a child’s brain development, can potentially contribute to cognitive behavioral problems. O’Hara hopes to have initial results by next September.
What makes Low’s invention compelling is its ease of use. getting an EEG to diagnose sleep disorders, which afflict 70 million people in the U.S., can involve going to a doctor or hospital, and wearing a cumbersome cap with something like thirty electrodes jutting out. The sensors transmit the brain’s electrical signals through multiple channels to a bulky recording machine. Low winnowed these electrodes down to two, and the number of data channels to one. it is hooked up to a recording box smaller than an iPod, and lighter than a pack of cigarettes. The patient wears a soft elastic strap to secure the iBrain in place. The recording is done at home, and brain data can be downloaded to a computer and sent to NeuroVigil for analysis. During most of our interview, Low carried on with the electrodes dangling from his head. he had plugged the wire into his cell phone, and I could see his brain waves on the small screen.
He spent six years devising an algorithm that distills the data, making it quicker to analyze. except to say that it is based on some pattern recognition, he will not reveal how it works. “If you do the math right, you can recover or reconstruct brain activity entirely,” he says.
Low, who’s Canadian, attended the elite Swiss boarding school Le Rosey. he went on to study math at the University of Chicago, and was invited by the late Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA helix, to work on his doctorate in computational neurobiology at the Salk Institute. With characteristic self-assurance, Low turned in a one-page thesis on sleep, which became the foundation of NeuroVigil in 2007.
He has funded his company with a combination of prize money, credit cards, and a small loan from Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, all totaling less than $700,000. he owns more than 90% of the company, with the rest distributed between the Salk Institute and his scientific board of advisors. Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin is one of them. Venture capitalists are knocking on his door, and Low says he’s about to close his first round this month.