Mental health: Can technology and therapies other than pills provide solutions?
By Simona Mellino
Today, there seems to be an “app” or a gadget for everything. With mental health issues gaining visibility, we were curious to look into whether there were any “beyond the pill” services and products leveraging novel technologies to address issues around brain and mental health.
We started by looking into start-ups, but quickly realized it wasn’t quite so simple. As a result, we are highlighting a handful of solutions that are tech- and (sometimes) evidence-based, and often close to FDA approval.
What brain and mental health issues are we talking about?
The most common mental health disorders – depression, anxiety and somatic complaints-affect 1 in 3 people worldwide and constitute, according to the WHO, a serious public health problem. While many mental health disorders differ amongst each other, they all share some similar features:
- They have a high prevalence – According to a systematic review of 27 studies in Europe (2005), 27% of the adult population experienced at least one of a series of mental disorders. IHME data(2016) show that the most prevalent worldwide are anxiety disorders and depression, the latter being one of the main causes of disability worldwide.
- They are highly disabling – Neuropsychiatric disorders show high disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) and years of life lost (YLL). For example, according to the WHO Global Burden of Disease study, the YLL due to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias doubled from 4.2 to 8.3 million between 2000 and 2012 worldwide.
- They primarily affect women–Prevalence rates for women are higher than for men for most mental disorders. According to IHME data (2016), for anxiety and bipolar disorder, higher prevalence in women was observed in all countries analysed in the study (global).
Who is playing in this space?
Venture capital funding in mental health and wellness has been increasing over the past years. The space of mindfulness, mental health, and therapy is nascent by some measures. However, the amount of money has increased significantly over a relatively short amount of time. This flow of capital has been going to different businesses that are building their products or services on anything from cognitive behavioural therapies to applied artificial intelligence.
For the sake of simplification, in this article we will segment the space according to three areas (a non-exhaustive list): general wellness and prevention, diagnosis and disorder management, and treatment.
General wellness and prevention
This segment focuses on building consumer products aimed at facilitating communication between patients and at providing educational content.
One example is Thrive Global, a private company founded by Arianna Huffington. Its objective is going beyond awareness and helping communities and people to improve their well-being, decrease stress, and reduce, if not even prevent, burnout. Thrive helps people to reach their personal goals by providing recommendations and coaching guides. In addition, they address companies’ needs, by assessing the pain points and needs of employees and helping to solve them.
Another company in this space is Shine, which offers personalized content and tips to improve daily happiness, mental health, and productivity.
An additional example is NeuroTracker, a privately-owned neuro-tech company that offers services to monitor and improve cognitive function for human performance and recovery. The company offers centre-based as well as remote training. Their science is based on several years of research and they have a large variety of published studies.
Diagnose or manage disorders
Start-ups in this space use technology aimed at providing a better approach to prevent or manage mental disorders.
One example is Neurotrack. They offer solutions to assess and ultimately improve memory over time. After a baseline assessment, they provide help to incorporate healthy behaviours and track the progress every 3 to 6 months. Their program is modelled after the FINGER study intervention (multi-year study amongst 1,200 adults at risk for cognitive decline, which reported better cognitive performance for those who engaged in lifestyle changes such as diet) and is delivered digitally.
In this category, telemedicine can also be included. One example is 7 Cups, which offers online support 24/7 via an online chat. This company connects patients with trained volunteer listeners.
In the context of prognosis, Altoida is another company to watch. Their approved class II medical device (AMD) provides early screening and monitoring of cognitive outcomes, and specifically declines patterns specific for prognosis (at risk) or classification of mild cognitive impairment. The solution is based on augmented reality that allows performing tests on complex daily tasks.
In this category, we can identify self-care behavioural programs aimed at offering “drug-replacement” and used to cure mental disorders.
Pear Therapeutics is leading the way. Their solution for substance use disorder, reSET, is the first and only FDA-authorized prescription digital therapeutic. They have a strong pipeline and collaborate with academic as well as commercial partners (e.g., Sandoz), on a broad variety of diseases including multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.
Another example is Akili, a digital therapeutic platform aimed at improving cognitive deficits. The company has a broad variety of products in the pipeline, targeting several conditions such as major depressive disorder (MDD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Akili is preparing to file AKL-T01 with FDA, which, would be prescribed as a stand-alone treatment for children, and adolescents with ADHD.
A third company which might soon fall into this category is Headspace, a provider of digital health applications to teach meditation and how to deal with stress. Headspace recently started a set of clinical trials via its subsidiary Headspace Health, in order to get FDA approval of its first digital health product by 2020 (they are currently recruiting for a study on 2000 people called “The Impact of 8 Weeks of Headspace on Stress in a Heterogeneous University Employee Cohort”).
While this is only a drop in the proverbial ocean, the Women’s Brain Project (WBP)is excited to learn about developments and investments in the brain and mental health space. We encourage all these companies and other entities engaged in this sector to integrate questions around gender and sex differences in their research studies, services, and support tools for patients.
If you would like to join us in this discussion about start-ups in health and share your information about your ideas and work – or other inspiring start-ups or companies in this space – leave a comment below or reach out using the contact form.
We will also be discussing artificial intelligence and novel technologies at our International Forum on Women’s Brain and Mental Health this 8-9 June in Zurich, Switzerland. To find out more, visit www.forum-wbp.com.