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Telemedicine

Brain tech report: The $35 billion niche waiting to break

Our new report, ‘Brain Tech: The $35 billion life-altering niche waiting to break, is based on six months’ worth of interviews with professionals at the forefront of the fledgling brain tech industry. Its aim is to investigate the current state of consumer brain technology and how this is likely to change in the short, medium and long-term.  

Around 70 miles west of Albuquerque, just outside of Grants, sits one of New Mexico Corrections Department’s 11,000-strong facilitates. It is here, in this barbed wire enclosed area, deep in the arid semi-desert, that some of the state’s most dangerous criminals live. Dr Kent Kiel has made scanning the brain of these mentally impaired individuals his life work.

“We have collected MRI [brain scan] data from over 3000 [prison] inmates,” he says. The long-term aim is to “establish the world’s largest database of brain data from incarcerated population”.

“I don’t have a final number in mind [for the size of the database],” he continues “but at our current rate we should hit 25,000 before I retire.”

This fascination with brains has long been part of the human condition. In the nineteenth century scientists used to collect the brains of dead geniuses and try to infer something about their living excellence.

A trip to the London science museum, for example, will reveal the slightly macabre sight of Charles Babbage’s brain in a jar next to evidence of his work. While in the twentieth century, Einstein’s brain had an extremely strange afterlife, decanted onto hundreds of slides and shipped around the world to be studied by experts.

But what about ordinary brains?

The trouble is, although most people are extremely interested in what is going on inside their own heads, limited technology has meant ‘normal’ brains have tended to be overlooked. “In the last five years we’ve learnt more than we have in 5000 years of neuroscience,” Amy Robinson wrote in the Scientific American. Yet this is still the tip of the iceberg. We still know next to nothing about healthy human brains in an everyday setting.

As Kim Du, VP of Corporate Development at Emotiv one of the big players in the consumer brain technology arena explains: “Right now lots of clinics have large databases of essentially broken, damaged brains. [This is] because most people don’t get the opportunity to have a brain scan unless they’ve experienced some trauma.”

Brain technology is a huge growing field. However, it is hard to quantify accurately. At the top level it incorporates the full gamut of academics, specialists and commercial enterprises, while underground groups of passionate programmers drive momentum from the ground up.

There are also clear limitations in the technology itself, both in terms of hardware and the software. And despite the massive health potential, at the consumer level brain headsets are often used in a gimmicky, science fiction way… such as to move remote control vehicles with your mind. This means any technology, like the brain itself, tends to baffle people and become shrouded in mystery.

Dr Gordon Fletcher, co-director of Salford Business School’s Centre for Digital Business says: “I would suggest a $35bn worldwide market value across all brain tech applications [by 2020].” Yet this monetary estimate is only a fraction of the true potential in brain tech.

It is already touching on some of the world’s most pressing health concerns: depression, Alzheimer’s and ADHD. It is having a slow, steady impact on the face of gaming, and gradually, it will allow individuals to monitor a raft of related conditions on their own home. For a rapidly aging population, all this could be transformational…

Over the last six months, in order to get a better understanding of all this, we have been speaking to a wide range of experts and industry professionals in the field. The results are summarised in a short report: ‘The $35 billion life-altering niche waiting to break’. Download it here.  

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