EEG consumer 'Brain Tech': A medical perspective

We catch up with Collette Johnson from Plextek Consulting

“If I was told I was going to have to put 20 leads on my head I would be nervous,” says Collette Johnson the medical business development manager at Plextek Consulting. “I don’t know why, but I think it is a human instinct and something like a [simple] headband which reduces that, and makes it feel more normal and less medical, really helps.”

We’re talking about EEG – brainwave monitoring – technology. At present this comes in two types: its scary, multi-wired medical form, and the slicker, but far less effective consumer option. At present companies like Emotiv, which provide devices that deliver research, gaming and statistics for the ‘quantified mental self’ are gradually making this technology more widely accepted. 

These wearable devices “make mental health a more friendly area,” explains Johnson. “Neuroscience is very specialist and the more you can open that up to more consumer-style technologies the less people become afraid.”

Johnson has 10 years’ experience of medical product development which has included a stint at the NHS. She believes that the progress from consumer device to medical-grade tech can help drive the medical space forward because it shows the “people perspective” in the equipment. However, she is also wary that the transition from consumer to medical must be handled correctly.

“When you go into a consumer market first, there is a really big education piece that is needed,” she says. This is for the simple reason that people get on Google, they self-diagnose and then they trouble their doctors with false symptoms which causes “a disengagement with the medical community”.

“That is where this type of technology needs to be careful,” she adds. “This is very specialist technology, people train over several years to interpret these results into meaningful treatment for people and maybe deal with certain mental health issues.” Naturally, this means there is a lot of room for getting things wrong.

“When ECG technology [to monitor the heart] went consumer that was the opposite way round,” says Johnson. But still “everyone was going to their doctor thinking they’d got heart failure or got atrial fibrillation, all because they’d read something that wasn’t comparative.”

She believes, this means it will be the lower end of five – ten years before consumer-style EEG technology becomes medical grade. This is because in the medical space we’ll be moving from a system where patients have multiple wires coming out of their head to the much nicer option of having just a few. Yet this will need to be “clinically evaluated” and ways to “deal with the data” will need to be addressed.

Johnson believes the technology has serious potential. “If it is approached in a controlled manner medically it will change the way we monitor and treat people going forward because we’ll understand so much more,” she says.

“The way we do things clinically at the moment we get a very 2D perspective of a person. The more 3D perspective you get, the more you can change people’s lives by treating them in a very specific and bespoke way.”

“Actually,” she concludes “I think this technology will really open this up by reducing people’s fear.”