Chris Berka has over 25 years experience managing clinical research, developing and commercializing new technologies. Her company Advanced Brain Monitoring (ABM) has demonstrated that using EEG can help detect sleep apnea, diagnose brain diseases and even help train snipers.

Sometimes we all need something to happen to transform our life, in case of Chris Berka watching her brainwaves did it. When she was a psychology major at Ohio State, she took a job in an Electroencephalography (EEG) lab there as a part of her initiation colleagues put some electrodes on her scalp and began asking her different questions. When they asked her an embarrassing and personal one, the patterns on the machine in front of her “went through the roof” and for Berka it was a revelation on many levels. She realized that modifying this technology and making it more portable (in the 1970s an entire room was needed to place all the equipment) might improve performance and well-being in general, diagnose brain diseases and even make people smarter. Berka thought that the potential uses were virtually unlimited. Moreover, in her opinion, the ability to look into your consciousness and see that normally you are not consciously aware of – is a different level of perception.

The path to Berka’s great achievements began with winning a clinical fellowship in a lab at UCLA where she worked to identify a neural signature of ADHD. However, the money that Berka wanted to use to renew her fellowship suddenly vaporized when Ronald Reagan became president and the budget of the National Institute of Health was slashed.  Berka started work, (which she thought would be a temporary gig, where she helped to run clinical trials for a team of entrepreneurs commercializing a new way to detect drug use by analyzing hair samples. Surprisingly she realized that the pace and challenges of private industry attracted her. She worked for 7 different CEOs over the next 12 years and she was learning from each one and one day the company’s customer said that they loved her drug testing program but they needed a drowsiness assay as drowsy driving was their biggest problem in terms of safety. Berka knew that EEG would easily detect the process of falling asleep. Moreover, she realized that in case if she could make EEG be more portable, she would have a ready market, including truckers, pilots and others professions where drowsiness can cause a dangerous situation. She decided that it was a proper time to pursue the vision she had that day in the lab many years ago.

 

ABM was founded in 1999 and remains private and in recent years created one of the most portable laboratory-grade EEG devices on the market. Besides, they showed different ways of using it – from curbing depression to training military snipers. However, the project which was aimed to control driver’s and pilot’s fatigue was dead before it got off the ground as, for example, truckers didn’t like that idea. Moreover, for them, drowsiness was a constant and detecting it didn’t change anything.

Nevertheless ABM decided to adapt their device to help detect and deal with sleep apnea. So now, the most successful commercial products of the company are in the sector of sleep science. They developed a compact EEG device which is aimed to detect and monitor the slow rhythmic brain oscillations associated with the various stages of sleep, and also it has special sensors that can monitor breathing. One of the versions of the device was made to help sleep clinics detect sleep apnea without requiring inpatient stays.

 

Targeted Neuroplasticity Training

In the beginning of 2000s, ABM took part in an effort called “Augmented Cognition”, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA). Its goal was to monitor cognitive brain states (working memory and attention) and then use computers to improve mental performance beyond its normal boundaries. It led ABM to a number of high-profile Pentagon-funded studies, including one on the brain states of expert snipers. Berka and DARPA wanted to find out if you could tell whether a person was an expert at something just by looking at his or her brain – and also whether it might be possible to monitor the changes as someone progressed from a beginner to a master. This project is known as the Accelerated Learning Program or “Targeted Neuroplasticity Training”. Berka and her team placed an array of electrodes over the top-level Marine sniper instructors to be able to track respiration, heart response and others important indications while the volunteers were going through the process they normally went through before shooting. The data showed some interesting results – scientists saw the exact same psychophysicological profile. In other words, they defined 2 main distinct EEG signatures. The first one demonstrated that every sniper was going through mental checklist or visualizing the perfect shot, and the second one expressed that they all were focused.

After that, Berka and others team members recruited 150 civilians and 150 marines with different levels of marksmanship skill, all non-expert.  The team developed a video introduction to shooting to make training be consistent, and volunteers were divided into 2 groups. The control group was able to practice shooting on their own and watches an additional instructional video. The second group (experimental) was set up with portable EEG and heart rate monitors and provided with real-time feedback.  It led to great results: those who received the feedback, showing when their heart rate and brain waves moved in and out of the ideal expert states, learned to become master marksmen twice as fast. Berka says that the feedback allows people to recognize the necessary state of a brain and control it.

As we have written there are some devices, which make medicine be borderless and there are people and companies, who produce them: ABM is one of those. They made a significant surge in studying different processes in a human brain. Pharmaceutical applications are now the company’s fastest growing direction of work. Three years ago they started working with Biogen, looking for EEG markers in Alzheimer’s, then branched out to Parkinson’s and frontotemporal dementia. During one large study with Harvard’s Martinos Center for medical imaging, they’ve even made it possible to use portable brain scanning techniques to identify neural signatures that can indicate the presence of plaques associated with Alzheimer’s, as the radiation levels of traditional methods of detection are impartial to be multiply used. Of some day this technique is commercialized, it would be much more cheap and practical. Not to mention, other pharmaceutical clients include Johnson & Johnson and Ionis.

Nowadays Berka pursues medical applications for clinical trials and patient diagnostics. Also she provides systems to some research institutions such as Harvard, Mayo Clinic, University of California, San Diego, University of Washington, and many others. In addition, ABM sells its EEG systems to many clinicians and sleep clinics.

After all these years, Berka still comes back to that day in the lab, realizing that everything moves fast and that’s what she likes about it.

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