In 1987, Wendy Mathewson was in a car accident.
She suffered a severe brain injury when her head was struck by debris. It left her in a coma. While she survived the ordeal, her brain function was never the same, and her nephew Kyle’s ongoing quest to help unlock the brain’s potential is deeply influenced by his wish to help improve his aunt’s life.
“No one knew how to fix her problem,” says Kyle.
Maybe, one day, he will.
The associate professor not only oversees experiments at his lab, on the ninth floor of the University of Alberta’s Biological Sciences building, he is consulting companies looking to make portable brain monitors as common as devices you put on your finger to check your oxygen levels or wristwatches that keep you updated on your fitness.
It’s a simple idea: Some days you have it, and some days you don’t.
There are days when you’re super productive. And then, there are those days when just answering a few emails feels like a Herculean task. There are days when an Oilers player looks like an All-Star, and then there are times when he looks lost on the ice.
How much of this has to do with the state of our brains?
Walk into Mathewson’s lab and you will see isolation booths, where volunteers connect to electrodes and receive stimuli, while monitors record their brain activity. One studies how our brains respond to anxiety; once inside the booth, the subject sees things that are meant to create fear.
But, the devices are becoming smaller, cheaper and easier to use, and they’re breaking out of university labs. Mathewson is consulting several companies that are looking to make major commercial breakthroughs by selling brain-monitoring devices that are easy to wear and can link via Bluetooth to your phone.
“It’s like a Fitbit, but for the brain,” he says.
Just imagine, a soccer coach wants to make a second-half substitution, but isn’t sure which player to put in. But, all of the subs are wearing the monitors, and the coach can tell, at least mentally, which player is at his or her peak. Or imagine a pilot or a truck driver putting on the head-set to see if they’re alert enough to work. Think of an artist who uses the monitor to recognize what things trigger creative bursts — it wasn’t the coffee after all, but maybe a certain song, or the way the sunlight comes through the living room window.
Right now, we’re in the nascent stages of this technology, with devices like Neurosity’s Crown, or eyeglasses from Blueberry that can monitor brain activity, or the Muse head-band that the company claims can help you meditate.
“We are developing the science, but we’re not sure what the applications will be yet,” says Mathewson.
What these smaller brain-monitoring devices are doing is making it easier for the researchers who study the brain. In Mathewson’s lab, there are a few large skull-shaped head coverings, filled with receptors. They are hooked up to many wires that then link to something that looks like an old stereo. It all looks a bit like the operating room from the not-so-classic Star Trek episode, “Spock’s Brain.”
But, this is old technology. In his office is a box of headsets that are easy to put on, and can be linked to the phone. This allows Mathewson to take his studies outside of the lab. He’s put people on bicycles and collected data. He’s put the head-sets on skateboarders.
For researchers like Mathewson, if the use of these devices becomes widespread, they can simply put the call out for volunteers, and they can put on their headsets and plug in.
“With hundreds of thousands of these devices out there, you could simply message people asking if they want to be part of a study, rather than bringing them into a lab like this.”
The University of Alberta’s stroke ambulance also uses a similar headset. There are strokes caused by blockages in the brain, and then there are strokes that are caused by bleeding in the brain. These devices can help the paramedics detect which type of stroke the patient is suffering, and help them figure out which drugs to administer. The whole point of the stroke ambulance is to send care to victims’ doorsteps, so, this device aids in that pre-hospital care.
“It’s underutilized, but they do try and use it now, when they pick up every stroke patient,” says Mathewson. “We now have one of these headsets in the ambulance and, every time someone comes in, they just have to put it on.”
Mathewson and his two brothers — Keyfer, and Top 40 Under 40 alumnus Kory — created an open-source program in 2022 that transforms brainwaves into animations. (Keyfer is an angel investor and Kory has moved to Montreal, where he works at Google DeepMind and is an associate at the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute.)
Kyle says there are many examples of programs that take the user’s brainwaves to influence what is seen on the screen. One would show how the environment changes based on your mood; it’s sunny when you are focused and attentive, and stormy when you drift off. One student rendered it as a horse race — your horse goes faster the more attentive and aware you are.
I jokingly ask Kyle who’s the smartest of the Mathewson brothers.
“Me,” he replies.
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Edify