BrainCapture – When a smartphone can detect epilepsy
About 1 percent of the world's population suffers from epilepsy. Many epilepsy patients in low- and middle-income countries do not receive the necessary treatment, even though the medicine is cheap. One of the reasons is that you do not have sufficient scanning equipment to make the correct diagnosis. The Danish company BrainCapture want to do something about that, and our subsidiary TechPeople provides hardware competencies for the project.
The West African country of Guinea has a population of about 12 million, and around 10,000 new cases of epilepsy annually. But the country has only one EEG machine and three neurologists.
BrainCapture’s project manager Tue Lehn-Schiøler and Harvard researcher Farrah J. Mateen were therefore welcomed with open arms when they travelled to Guinea’s capital Conacry in 2018 to test their epilepsy scanner at the local Ignace Deen hospital. The BrainCapture system is affordable and mobile, unlike the stationary, advanced and expensive EEG scanners that only a few low- and middle-income countries can afford. In many countries there is at most one, in others there are none of these scanners.
Therefore, the WHO estimates that 2 million new cases of epilepsy annually are not diagnosed. According to the WHO, 75 percent of all epilepsy patients in low- and middle-income countries – a total of approx. 30 million people – are not getting the treatment they need.
Great need for low cost EEG
In Conacry, the researchers scanned 400 patients in two weeks, to test five BrainCapture prototypes, and to present the system to local neurologists. Tue Lehn-Schiøler and his colleagues confirmed that the need for a low-cost EEG solution is enormous: in sub-Saharan Africa alone, there is a need for around 1 million scans, annual.
Now BrainCapture has developed a new version of its mobile scanning equipment. The system consists of a “bathing cap” with sensors, a recorder the size of a matchbox, a smartphone app and cloud-based diagnostic software. Instead of the patients having to travel to a remote neuro-clinic, the BrainCapture system can perform scans at the local health center. After the scan, data is sent to the experts, who can make a diagnosis at a distance. Typically, one in three scans shows a positive result.
Started as research
BrainCapture began as a research project at DTU Compute entitled “The Smartphone Brain Scanner: A Portable Real-Time Neuroimaging System”. No one was thinking about epilepsy at the time. The researchers’ goal was just to build a system with off-the-shelf modules and code an app so you could see your brain waves spinning around on the phone.
They subsequently demonstrated the brain scanner at conferences around the world and at one of them they met the American doctor Farrah Mateen. She believed that the scanner could be used to diagnose epilepsy in 3rd world countries, where one typically does not have measuring equipment to measure EEG signals. She asked the DTU researchers to build a number of prototypes for her, which she subsequently tested, among other things. in Guinea and Bhutan.
Establishment of start-up
In the spring of 2018, she again approached the DTU researchers. The four-year-old equipment was about to be worn out and she wanted to order something new. In the meantime, however, the original research project had expired. Instead, the researchers decided to establish a start-up to further develop the project. Tue Lehn-Schiøler and his colleagues had to build some new scanners, then travel to Guinea in August to meet Farah Mateen and perform scans on local patients with suspected epilepsy.
We called TechPeople to ask if they could help us revive the old technology, says Tue Lehn-Schiøler.
We had some old boxes lying around that needed to be disassembled and modified to fit the system. In addition, the old software had to be updated and installed on some new devices. We did that pretty quickly with TechPeople over the summer. In Guinea, we then conducted a large number of scans and everything went as it should.
Cheaper and better version
When we got home, we decided to make ourselves independent of the off-the-shelf modules we had used until then. For the system to work in the long run, we needed a cheaper and better version, with some hardware that we could control ourselves. Here we again asked TechPeople to help us, in collaboration with our own hardware man here at DTU.
Niels Harthøj, hardware expert at TechPeople, explains:
I work with the box where the signal from the electrodes is collected. The box contains electronics for controlling the measuring circuits and some measuring amplifiers that boost the signal from the electrodes. The box then sends measurement data to a smartphone or tablet and from there on to a server.
There is still some way to go before the system can be produced on a large scale. Before then, the new BrainCapture equipment must be tested at epilepsy hospitals in Denmark and the USA to document that they provide reliable data. In addition, the system must go through a series of medical approval procedures.
But the potential is great. According to Tue Lehn-Schiøler, the new version of the system will help to spread effective epilepsy diagnostics to a huge population group who currently do not have the opportunity to have their disease treated.
The primary market remains low- and middle-income countries. But in the long run, BrainCapture will also be able to be used in Denmark in situations where e.g. 24-hour measurements on children or the disabled, which it is more appropriate to monitor at home than in the hospital.