Understand sleep, and you could have the key to unlock some of the biggest neurological disorders affecting our health. Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, depression -- disturbed sleep plays a role in all of these.
This is the position of Dr. Philip Low, a pioneer in the field of sleep science and founder of NeuroVigil. At TED MED, Low presented a breakthrough technology that makes it possible for people to monitor their brainwaves while they sleep, and stream that information to a cell phone or other electronic device.
"We can give you access to your own brain," Low said. "We can do it right away and we can do it in your own home."
A head harness fixed with electrodes reads brainwaves through a single EEG channel, creating a map of brain activity that can be viewed on your cell phone. The data can then be screened for "biomarkers" that indicate abnormalities.
"The idea is to have biomarkers for schizophrenia, for Parkinson's -- for all kinds of psychiatric disorders, in order to give you access to your own brain," said Low. To do this, NeuroVigil is working on collecting -- via cell phones -- brainwaves from all over the world.
"This is a big project," Low said. "But we want to build the world's biggest database. We want to put your brain on a cell phone. And we want to tell you, in real time, what is happening to your brain before you have cognitive disorders."
This is a crucial development for a health industry in which two billion people worldwide are affected by a brain or nervous system disorder. Seventy million Americans are diagnosed with sleep disorders, but less than half will ever have a sleep test -- which are currently expensive, uncomfortable and often inaccurate, said Low.
"Sleep is an untapped opportunity to study the brain," he wrote in an article for Frontiers in Neuroscience. "An opportunity which neuroscientists, the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry and most of you -- and us -- have yet to wake up to."