One in five New Zealanders suffer from chronic pain, and are often reliant on drugs. But now a Kiwi company is using EEG technology to help patients retrain their brains to manage pain.
Engineer Richard Little has invented a home-based electroencephalography (EEG) device that reads electrical activity in the brain to help chronic pain patients take control of their rehabilitation.
Little’s company Exsurgo aims to reduce the $14 billion cost of treating chronic pain on New Zealand’s healthcare system through technology.
EEG technology has been around for almost 100 years and has been used to study a person’s brain activity for about 60 years.
But Little wanted to create an affordable and accessible EEG device that patients could use to track their recovery.
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Axon is a wearable non-invasive helmet with electrodes that transmits brain wave data to the patients’ tablet or phone in a game format.
Patients can play simple games, which are actually neurological exercises, that can help them change the electrical signals in their brain associated with pain.
The games give patients’ positive reinforcements when their brain relaxes through sound.
For instance, one game involves keeping a hot air balloon in the air. The calmer you are, the higher the hot air balloon travels.
Patients have a few options when choosing their games, such as a puzzle and a maze, as some may be easier for people to concentrate on than others.
“I hated the way she struggled with everyday things and became isolated from her friends and family as she struggled with her mobility, so I built some railings to help her move more easily around her house.”
– Richard Little
Little says the problem with just telling someone to be calm isn’t easy to measure.
“Patients don’t really have independent feedback to understand whether the change is happening or not.”
He says positive reinforcements make rehabilitation more effective.
A 2018 report commissioned by the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists estimated the total annual cost to New Zealand of chronic pain was between $13 billion and $14.9 billion.
Often chronic pain occurs when nerves become over-sensitive and send warning messages to the brain caused by an ongoing injury or even when the original injury causing pain has healed.
Little has been developing technology to assist medical needs for more than 20 years after his mother suffered a stroke.
“I hated the way she struggled with everyday things and became isolated from her friends and family as she struggled with her mobility, so I built some railings to help her move more easily around her house,” Little says.
“My mum’s experience got me thinking more and more about how physical and mental wellbeing are so interconnected.”
Exsurgo recently completed a successful clinical trial in the United Kingdom with 16 patients.
The data showed all patients experienced improvements in their pain after using the device. Improvements from the eight weeks of neurofeedback training were sustained at follow up points – 4, 12 and 26 weeks, he says.
It is unknown whether medication can alter the efficacy of the headset, but Exsurgo plans to start its larger patient trial in Auckland by August, with 160 patients, to get a better sense of that.
A 2018 report commissioned by the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists estimated the total annual cost to New Zealand of chronic pain was about $14 billion.
Little says patients are still on medication during the trial, but some have reduced medication or gone completely off it since using Axon.
“Chronic or long-term pain is complex and can be difficult to treat, and people can have absolutely miserable lives because of it. And standard treatments such as prescription of pain-killing drugs can have their downsides, as we’ve seen in many countries now grappling with opioid crises.”
The company’s spent more than $15 million in creating this technology. It has also received a $300,000 funding grant from Callaghan Innovation and is looking to raise a further $10m.
Little, a trained paramedic, has also created a robotic exoskeleton that gave people who had lost the use of some or all function of their legs the ability to walk again.
The award-winning inventor previously set up the company Rex Bionics, with his friend Robbie Irving who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“My dream was to develop robotic technology so people like Robbie could continue to stand up and walk as their disease progressed – and keep enjoying a better quality of life.”
In 2014 he public listed the company in the UK and then sold it to private investors.
Little says there is growing demand for technology in medicine as humans live longer.
“As we live longer, our expectations have gotten higher as well. We expect to be cured and fixed.
“I’m not a doctor, I can’t cure diseases, but I can build devices that will help make those humans more efficient and give them more time.”
While the cost isn’t known yet, Little says he planned on making the helmet affordable for patients to use at home and it could be prescribed by doctors next year.
As it is designed to be used for 35 minutes four times a week for eight weeks, he says once available on the market Exsurgo might be available through a subscription model.
Little says the data will also be private and only accessible to the patient and clinician.