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Engineering better mental health solutions

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 13, 2014 06:00 AM

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Another installment in our ongoing series to showcase innovative MassChallenge companies. MassChallenge is the world's largest startup accelerator and the first to support entrepreneurs with no strings attached. Startups can apply to the 2014 MassChallenge summer accelerator from Feb 12 - April 2.

The world needs more engineers in mental healthcare. By many metrics, mental illness and brain disorders are the world’s largest health issue. These illnesses make an impact on every aspect of our lives and are extremely costly to treat. While many call for more and better solutions from pharmaceutical companies, what we really need are more engineers and engineering programs to provide alternative devices and supplemental programs to treat mental illness.

The costs and impact of mental illness are astronomical. Many researchers have identified this enormous problem in healthcare (for example, see The McGovern Institutes for Brain Research at MIT’s breakdown of the costs of mental illness). In short:


  • ~25% of people in the US have a diagnosable mental illness

  • Unipolar depression is the largest disease burden in high income countries

  • Conservatively, the annual cost of mental illness in the US is $317 billion

The $317 billion estimate does not include other associated costs such as homelessness, incarceration or substance abuse. That number also neglects the cost for other brain disorders such as Autism, which is estimated to cost $126 billion annually, or Alzheimer’s ($200 billion per year), and others.

Currently, there are only two major treatment options for mental illnesses: medication and talk/behavioral therapies. Both types of treatments are helping millions of people, but both have their shortcomings too. Medications don’t always work. They have many side effects that can be so severe that patients stop using them, and can lead to other medical health issues. Meanwhile, behavioral therapies, specifically in the more severe cases, often cannot fully address the issue and can be difficult to access or integrate into daily life.

There are so few effective treatments available that the horrific practices of restraint (think tranquilizers) and seclusion (think isolation) are still somewhat common. These practices are considered last resorts when treatments fail, and fewer caregivers would have to turn to them if their checklist of treatment options were longer.

The lack of technology to help in the treatment of mental illness is surprising, however, that trend is changing with the creation of new technology from innovative engineers and entrepreneurs. Here are a few fresh approaches to treating mental illnesses enabled by new technologies and companies:


Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)
Medtronic has been a leader in neurostimulation and neuromodulation and are being that expertise to brain disorders with their DBS technology, DBS is like a pace maker for the brain, which helping people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s and is being explored to help with severe depression.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
Companies like Neuronetics are looking at Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which uses magnetic fields to stimulate areas of the brain to help people with Major Depressive Disorder in adult patients who have failed to achieve satisfactory improvement from one prior antidepressant medication. Both of these interventions are currently focused on the severe.

Sensory Based Interventions
Sensory based interventions use sensory stimulus to help people regulate. Sensory processing disorders are a major issue for people with autism. My company Therapeutic Systems specializes in designing sensory based technology and offers a medical device that applies firm pressure to the body known as deep touch pressure. Deep pressure has been observed to help people with autism regulate. Other companies like iLS use sound to help people with autism and sensory processing issues.

Wearable/Monitoring Technology
Beyond intervention there are companies that are developing wearable technology to measure, monitor and track, stress, anxiety, and behaviors to better understand mental illness. One such company is Neumitra that has a watch that collects physiological data to identify stressful situations and can provide cues to help people cope with the stress. The VA also has developed an app to help veterans and others with PTSD, which allows them to log and monitor different behaviors.


Understanding the brain is the last great frontier of the body. New brain imaging and mapping technology is leading to many new discoveries and now we need engineers and the business community to reduce the science to practice and translate it to the market. We will only be able to advance the care of mental illness and brain disorders if more engineers start to research, work in, and get trained in brain disorders.

Including more engineers into this domain will only lead to new innovations in measurement, monitoring and treatment and faster translation from theory, to product. Engineers, product designers and the business community need to start researching and developing new methods for the design development and commercialization of technology to address the large needs in mental illness.

Brian Mullen, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Therapeutic Systems. Brian recently gave a TEDx talk on his research related to the design of products for people with mental illness and the need for more innovation in this area.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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