Can Brain Waves Be Harvested to Treat Sleep Disorders?

A New York company has received a federal grant to test a digital health platform that captures brain waves from a healthy sleeper and transplants them into someone with a sleep disorder.

Imagine someone else using their thoughts to combat sleep deprivation and get a good night’s sleep. A digital health company is looking to make that possible.

NeuroLight, a New York-based company focused on neuromodulation, is using a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to essentially transplant the brain waves of a healthy sleeper into someone struggling to sleep.

The science behind this concept was described by Alexander Poltorak, the founder and president of the company and a researcher at the City College of New York (CUNY), in a September 2021 article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

“Brain states that correlate with specific motor, cognitive, and emotional states can be monitored using noninvasive techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), which measure macroscopic cortical activity manifested as oscillatory network dynamics,” Poltorak wrote. “These rhythmic cortical signatures provide insight into neuronal activity that is used to identify pathological cortical function in many neurological and psychiatric conditions. Sensory and transcranial stimulation that encourages the brain with specific brain rhythms can effectively induce desired brain states (such as for example sleep states or Because brain states have different neural correlates, it may be possible to induce a desired brain state by replicating these neural correlates through stimulation.”

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According to a press release issued this week, Neurolight will use the $255,851 NSF Small Business Innovation Research grant to create a platform that registers the cortical signatures, or brain waves, of a healthy sleeping person and, through a mobile digital health device, them into the brain of someone dealing with a sleep problem like insomnia to put them to sleep.

“We propose that brain states can therefore be transferred between people by receiving an associated cortical signature from a donor, which can be applied after processing to a recipient through sensory or transcranial stimulation,” said Poltorak in the journal article. “This technique may provide a new and effective neuromodulation approach to the non-invasive, non-pharmacological treatment of various psychiatric and neurological disorders, for which current treatments are mostly limited to pharmacotherapeutic interventions.”

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Company officials said the research could help millions of people dealing with sleep problems, noting that seven of the 15 leading causes of death in the United States are linked to sleep deprivation.

The science of neuromodulation, or harvesting the power of electrical impulses for therapeutic benefit, dates back to 1967, when neurosurgeon C. Norman Shealy developed an implantable device to use deep brain stimulation (DBS) for chronic and intractable to treat pain. Early efforts were problematic, largely due to the technology of that era, but in 1974 doctors developed less invasive electrodes that could do the job without damaging the spinal cord.

Today’s technology has evolved significantly since 1974, with digital health devices and platforms that can capture and transmit without harming the human body. Neurotech Reports estimates that the worldwide neuromodulation industry will see $13.3 billion in business in 2022, addressing issues ranging from pain to chronic conditions such as epilepsy, migraines and urinary incontinence.

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NeuroLight officials say they are the first company to develop the technology to “transplant mental states from one person to another,” and early, small studies have been positive. Should this NSF-supported project see positive results, the company may be eligible for as much as $17 million in additional funding to continue the work.

“We are honored and pleased to have been awarded this highly competitive grant from the NSF,” Poltorak said in the press release. “This grant will support R&D efforts to develop a prototype for the proof-of-concept study.”

Eric Wicklund is the innovation and technology editor for HealthLeaders.


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