Neureka: Playing mind games to expand neuroscience research

16 Nov 2020

Dr Claire Gillan. Image: Paul Sharp/Sharppix

Our featured start-up for Future Health Week is Neureka, a young company looking to expand the possibilities of neuroscience research.

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“Neureka is a smartphone app designed to dramatically scale up the number of participants we can recruit for research studies in the area of brain health,” explained Neureka founder Dr Claire Gillan.

The app, she said, plays host to gold-standard cognitive neuroscience tests in the form of interactive games users can play on their phone. The data from these gaming experiences is collated with information provided by users on their diet, exercise and mental health, so that a distraction in your downtime can become a useful tool for researchers.

“Waiting in line or riding the bus, any time users spend on the app helps basic scientists to ‘power up’ their research studies – a critical step forward for research in this area that has long been plagued by small samples that produce results that cannot be reproduced,” said Gillan.

‘People are very willing to participate in a research app, but they need something in return’

Launched this summer, Neureka attracted 3,000 active users in its first few months. “Even with advertising costs we are able to acquire new users at a cost that’s rare in academic research, especially given the amount of data we are able to collect per user,” said Gillan.

In terms of investment, the start-up has already raised close to €2m in funding. With this backing, Gillan believes that Neureka can make studies more comprehensive by expanding their reach.

“Traditional research studies are often confined to one region or, worse yet, one particular class of people like university undergraduates. Moving out of the lab helps us to not just size up our studies, but make them more representative of the population as a whole,” she explained.

Because of the nature of the app, anyone can participate in the research from anywhere in the world. To make that an attractive proposition, Neureka has taken what Gillan described as “somewhat boring lab-based tests” and turned them into fun games that preserve their scientific relevance.

These games are modified versions of clinically validated tests to study memory, mental flexibility and decision-making. “Previous research has already established that some of these tests can differentiate people with and without dementia, while others have never been studied in this context before,” said Gillan.

Better brain health

Gillan emphasised that Neureka users are not mere guinea pigs. Work is in the early stages, but the app aims to feed back findings to users and educate them on risk factors for dementia and methods to help keep their brains healthier for longer.

This could be hugely valuable to public health as up to 40pc of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed with a combination of lifestyle interventions. “Many people remain unaware of all the little things that they can do to reduce their own risk for dementia. Even something simple like wearing a hearing aid can potentially reduce the risk of dementia,” said Gillan. “Although each activity only reduces the risk by a little bit, collectively they make a big difference.”

Providing users with information and feedback also proved essential to improving engagement with the app. “People are very willing to participate in a research app, but they need something in return, if even just to understand their progress.”

As well as the games, the Neureka app includes a daily mood tracker in order to study networks of depression systems. “The data can tell us how specific events set off cascades of symptoms that in some cases may kickstart episodes of serious mental illness,” said Gillan.

“We are about to launch a new feature that helps the public detect ‘fake news’ by watching out for tell-tale signs that a finding has been overblown in the media,” she added.

Next for Neureka

Gillan’s academic journey started at University College Dublin, then the University of Cambridge, followed by New York University’s Centre for Neural Science. She returned to Dublin in 2017 and became assistant professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, where she started her own research lab.

Supported by almost €3m in funding, the Gillan Lab is focused on developing online methods for large-scale research in the areas of mental health and dementia. Gillan herself has published 39 peer-reviewed papers including first-author papers in psychiatric journals, with several thousand citations.

“The lab has a central goal of translating basic neuroscience into tools of clinical value and we use large samples and data-driven methods like machine learning to try and achieve those goals,” said Gillan. “My team has a wide range of backgrounds including marketing, game development, clinical service delivery, psychology and neuroscience.”

Next steps for Neureka will include partnering with SciStarter, a citizen science initiative in the US, to increase engagement with the citizen science community there. More features will also be added to the app and Gillan is open to commercialisation.

“Although we are currently a non-profit app focused on research applications, if the app proves useful, we foresee a future where Neureka could be better managed as a commercial entity, leaving the science to the scientists and the business to a dedicated team,” she said.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.