n*gram health – Virtual Reality for DementiaBy Emily Udal
Alzheimer’s and related dementias affect approximately six million Americans today, costing the health system $300 billion annually; yet, there are no effective pharmaceuticals available to address this problem. The brunt of the burden for care is borne by professional and family caregivers, which often leads to high levels of stress and poor mental and physical health.
One of the few effective therapies for Alzheimer’s—and aging in general—is one of the simplest and most common: reminiscence. This approach emerged in the 1960’s when a geriatric psychiatrist noticed that elderly people tend to review their lives and noticed the positive effect this had on their mental state. Often with the use of aids such as photographs or songs, reminiscence therapy has been studied and shown to have positive effects on depression, mood, behavior, and cognition.
The first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease is the entorhinal cortex, which processes not only memory, but also spatial navigation. In fact, many posit that the capacity for memory evolved out of our ability to navigate based on landmarks in our environment. The most common reminiscence therapy technique—looking at an old photo album—taps into memory. However, it can’t yet bring an elderly person to actively engage their sense of spatial navigation, a capacity that often weakens as a person’s mobility declines. Virtual reality, in positioning people in recognizable environments, can more fully engage this part of the brain and better stimulate our senses of memory and spatial navigation. Furthermore, it can tap into other cognitive functions such as language and attention and provide a new methodology for studying how this disease affects cognition.
n*gram health researches, develops, and markets virtual reality-based therapies for individuals with dementia and for their family and professional caregivers. These therapies draw on reminiscence and other validated non-pharmacological dementia interventions such as music therapy. The n*gram technology takes information about a loved one’s life (e.g. nice memories, biographical details, photos) and synthesizes it into customized virtual reality environments designed to evoke positive emotions, memories, and stories. These sessions are directed by professional caregivers, and session highlights (e.g. nice story told by grandma) are shared with family members alongside prompts to share additional biographical info. This information is integrated into the VR experiences and is also codified in interactive timelines of key episodes in a person’s life. This provides families a new way to preserve legacy and learn more about their loved one’s life. The company is partnering with home health agencies to deliver this service to families under a B2B2C business model
The n*gram team first met in January of 2019 in the Columbia class “Launch your Startup: Tech.” Co-Founders Maor Cohen (CEO) and Ashik Banger Veerappa (CTO) partnered after discovering their shared interest in using emerging technologies to improve healthcare.
Since the company’s inception, the team has conducted hundreds of research interviews with prospective customers and experts in the space which they have used to refine and improve the product design. The company won the Columbia Founder’s Initiative Grant as one of the most promising startups at Columbia Business School. The team hopes to conduct analysis across VR, voice, text, and survey data to bring novel approaches for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
“I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the inner workings of the brain and spent my entire career at the intersection of healthcare and technology.” – Maor Cohen
Prior to his MBA at Columbia Business School, Maor consulted for and developed technologies for hospital systems with the Advisory Board Company. There he advised health system clients on issues pertaining to staff engagement and change management and built technology products used by healthcare staff. He has experience with multiple healthcare technology startups.
Ashik Banger Veerappa is pursuing his master’s degree in Business Analytics at Columbia University focused on machine learning and brain-computer interaction. Previously, he was a system engineer for Tata Consulting Services.
Initially, the company is partnering with senior care organizations, specifically home healthcare agencies. With these organizations, n*gram intends to conduct pilots in a few geographic areas to demonstrate the effectiveness of the service on both patients, professional caregivers, and family caregivers. After these pilots are complete, n*gram plans to roll out their service more broadly.
To date, n*gram has partnered with a 200+ franchise home health agency on a pilot beginning spring 2020. The company aspires to become one of the first FDA-approved prescription digital therapeutics for dementia and will be conducting a feasibility study to support an embedded pragmatic clinical trial starting in 2020.
The company is currently fundraising for their pre-seed round. Prospective investors can contact the company at firstname.lastname@example.org and prospective users can learn more information here: https://ngramhealth.com/