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Tech Watches You for Digital Symptoms of Brain Disorders

Depression, Alzheimer’s, and other syndromes leave their mark in the way you type and talk

3 min read
Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The medical professionals tasked with caring for our minds don’t have an easy job. To diagnose people with neuropsychiatric diseases, doctors can perform brain scans, but such scans are expensive and the results are sometimes inscrutable. The other options include conducting time-­consuming cognitive tests, or relying on doctors’ own subjective analyses.

Seeing an opportunity, a number of startups have devised quantitative methods to diagnose diseases or assess mental health while patients complete routine activities, like talking on a smartphone, typing on a keyboard, or scrolling through a website. Here are three companies that say they can lift the “fingerprints” of mental disorders from people’s mundane behaviors.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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