From herbal remedies to vitamins, minerals, and others, as many as 75 percent of Canadians take some form of dietary supplement. It’s not a cheap pursuit. Collectively, citizens spend about $1.5 billion buying the pills every year, with some common supplements costing upwards of $30 per bottle.
Despite being embedded in the daily routines of many, supplements are frequently approved for sale in Canada with minimal review of their efficacy and weak evidence that they make any kind of contribution to health.
For Ramin Estifaie, CEO of Photonic Signatures, that uncertainty is unacceptable.
“I myself come from a history of family that are prone to memory issues or sleep disorders or Alzheimer’s disease,” he tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “I always want to know what’s going on in my brain. When it comes to physical fitness, it’s not too hard: there are certain metrics, like your BMI, that will show you what’s going on with your body. But what about the brain? What do we do with that? And how often do we go back to our brain to make sure it’s healthy?”
Photonic Signatures aims to offer everyday people the tools to measure and track their mind’s well-being at home using just an iPad. The company has developed a testing-and-screening app that asks users to perform six specific tasks that measure functions such as memory, focus, and attention. When a person undertakes the exercises, the camera records the different movements of their eyes, which the team believes gives insight into the performance of the brain. Photonic Signatures hopes to use that data to feed a machine-learning algorithm and create a way of scoring an individual’s mental acuity.
The ultimate goal of Photonic Signatures is to improve people’s quality of life by detecting neurodegenerative diseases before they manifest themselves. Part of that is its ability to test whether supplements are making an impact on the brain.
“The tech side of eye-tracking has existed for a very long time,” Estifaie says. “But the data that we get from the eye-tracking will end up working in the pharma industry. There’s a lot of products in the market such as supplements which are targeting aging populations, athletes, and normal populations and [claim] to offer them support in their physical and cognitive function. My number one focus is how we actually measure the efficacy of these products.
“By running those tests every other week or month, at first you can set a benchmark,” he continues. “By changing some lifestyle factors, you can make improvements and see the results yourself.”
Although Estifaie suggests that eye-tracking technology has existed for a long time, he believes that his research teams are best placed to create a piece of software that accurately identifies brain function and that can be placed into the hands of everyday Canadians. The company is working in collaboration with scientists from the National Research Council of Canada—Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC—IRAP), along with SFU’s Digital Health Hub and Digital Health Circle, to build its breakthrough technology. The business is now gearing up for a proof-of-concept trial that will run in collaboration with the university this summer.
Although identifying the usefulness of supplements is the company’s first steps, Photonic Signatures ultimately wants to minimize the risk of brain issues more generally by offering early detection.
“Right now, there’s still no solution to Alzheimer’s,” Estifaie says. “It’s really hard to detect that, and there’s no cure at this point, unfortunately. The goal is to really understand the issues way ahead of time of developing symptoms. And I think gathering a lot of data, really accurately measuring it, and coming up with the algorithm you want to have—that’s the end goal of the company, whether that’s through eye-tracking or another kind of IP. It will involve a lot of R and D, but that’s the goal: to create the most noninvasive method, which is accessible and won’t take up the resources of the health-care system.”
Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays