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Brainwaves: The New Vitals

Brainwaves may soon join blood pressure and heart rate as vital stats.

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Illustration of brain waves

agsandrew/Thinkstock

A visit to the doctor routinely involves a check of a patient’s vital signs, including temperature, blood pressure and pulse. It’s important to know what normal is, so that when something is off kilter, it’s easy to spot. But assessing a person’s brain function is more difficult, and a team of researchers is working on ways to make testing that as simple and as objective as slipping on a blood-pressure cuff.

Traditionally, a patient’s brain function is only assessed by doctors after there is reason for concern—if someone’s been bonked on the head, for example, or is acting confused. Because there’s already been an injury or the onset of a disease, and because tests can rely on subjective, behavior-based assessments, it can be challenging to get a baseline measurement. Scientists at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, based in Surrey Memorial Hospital, are developing ways to measure brain health over time by using non-invasive electrodes that track the brain’s electrical activity. They’re looking for ways to translate brainwaves into objective, practical data—in other words, a brain’s vital signs.

The team published an article on this subject in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, showing that it is possible to monitor brain performance during auditory sensation, and basic attention and cognitive processing using non-invasive electrodes.

In the paper, researchers describe how their framework translates complex brainwave science into accessible information and demonstrates successful measurement of brain vital signs in both younger and older adults. Their method, they say, identified age-related brain function changes that were not evident using traditional measurements.

“Tracking our brain’s vital signs is critically important for establishing a baseline for a person's objective brain activity,” wrote professor Ryan D’Arcy, SFU’s Leadership Chair in Medical Technologies.

Using technologies like the ones developed by the SFU team, in the future, we may all have our brains’ vital signs regularly read at the doctor’s office. Then, when we experience a concussion, stroke or a disease such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, it will be easier to measure how our brain function has been affected, and whether or not the treatments we receive are working.

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Savannah. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!.


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