Researchers create algorithm that tracks brain activity from the wrist

A team of scientists at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering have created a novel algorithm. It is capable of monitoring brain activity by looking at electrical impulses on the skin. This brings them closer to developing a device that can track mental health from the wrist.

Some seven years in development, the software uses information gathered through an electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor through the skin. Wearables such as the Fitbit Sense and Charge 5 come packing this type of technology. They use this to more precisely identify how stressed you are.

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An EDA sensor monitors the variation of electrical conductance of a person’s skin. This is done in response to minute amounts of sweat secretion. The process is also referred to as Galvanic Skin Response.

As detailed in the journal Computational Biology, researchers at NYU Tandon School of Engineering have taken the Fitbit-type analysis up a notch. They are using an EDA sensor to develop a inference engine that tracks the emotional state of a person. According to a statement from NYU, this is done in “real-time with accuracy and high scalability”. It seems, this detailed model of the glands provides exceptional insight into inferring the brain activity.

The ultimate goal is to create a wearable that can monitor a person’s mental state and give them a nudge if something is amiss. For example, soothing music could be played if the device assesses you are under stress.

The yet-to-be finished gizmo already has a name. If it ever sees the light of day, it will be called Mindwatch according to the statement. The device has been tested on 26 healthy individuals and showed that it can reliably decipher brain signals by monitoring EDA.

The potential use of such devices goes far beyond just letting a person know if they are under stress. The tech could be utilized, for example, to monitor for symptoms of neuropathy. Sometimes a complication of diabetes, the condition can cause severe nerve damage, numbness and pain.

In fact, the French outfit Withings will be monitoring for this condition with their upcoming smart scale. The device was unveiled at CES 2022 in January and is expected to be made widely available in the next month or two. But their product doesn’t use EDA. Instead, it has a 6-lead ECG that applies a small direct current to the body (through the feet and hands). The info from this is then used to spit out a daily assessment of nerve activity from sweat glands. Currently, these types of assesments can only be done by neurologists and endocrinologists in a proper medical setting.

The NYU research team is now working on ways to incorporate their model into wearables. They are also seeking partnerships to build their algorithm into devices.

There is other tech on the market that claims to be able to track emotional health. Some of these wearables, such as Upmood Watch and Sense Band, have used the crowdfunding model to raise funds for manufacturing. These two arrive at their insights by tracking heart rate, heart rate variability, ECG and more. And let’s not forget the Amazon Halo. That one listens to the tone of your voice to figure out social and emotional wellbeing.

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