Neuroscience company Exsurgo is accelerating its development plans after a recent UK trial confirmed the exciting potential of its breakthrough treatment for chronic pain management.
Exsurgo’s ‘Axon’ system uses EEG (electroencephalography) neurofeedback to train chronic pain sufferers to manage their pain, so they can avoid or reduce the use of pharmaceutical drugs that bring risks of addiction or side-effects. Axon monitors brain activity and uses that data to help the patient ‘retrain’ their brain responses to nerve signals from the body.
Patients in the UK study reported significant reductions in pain levels as well as in anxiety and depression. At the same time, they reported improvements in sleep, mood and quality of life. Improvements from eight weeks of neurofeedback training were sustained at follow up points four, 12 and 26 weeks later.
The UK study was intentionally small-scale, involving 16 patients, to serve as a proof-of-concept for the Axon system and lay the groundwork for further research. A much larger clinical trial is due to start in New Zealand in 2021.
“These trial results are the next important step in our five-year journey to develop, validate and then commercialise our neuroscience technologies,” says Exsurgo CEO Richard Little. “As we’d hoped, this trial shows us that we have a solution that can change lives and makes EEG neurofeedback therapy much more affordable and accessible.”
Chronic pain affects up to one in five people around the world and is a massive burden on healthcare systems and economies. A 2018 report commissioned by the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (ANZCA) estimated the total annual cost to New Zealand of chronic pain at $13-14.9 billion – greater than for diabetes, dementia and smoking.
EEG has been used in neurofeedback research since the early 1960s, but conventional EEG neurofeedback is complicated and costly for both patient and doctor, meaning it hasn’t been used extensively for treatment of chronic pain or other ailments.
Exsurgo plan to change this with Axon. “Axon uses the latest science and AI technology to make EEG neurofeedback therapy faster, better and much cheaper. Patients will be able to engage in neurofeedback training at home with remote clinical supervision,” says Little.
The patient wears a custom-designed EEG headset that transmits data about electrical activity associated with pain in their brain to an app on a mobile device. There, it’s visually represented via neurological exercises in simple animated games played by the patient.
“Through real-time visual feedback in sessions repeated several times a week over eight weeks, the patient learns to self-regulate their brain activity, and change how their brain interprets pain signals, thereby reducing their pain. The app settings can be fine-tuned via AI machine learning of the data stream, which is also monitored remotely by the patient’s clinician.”
Exsurgo was founded in 2015 by multi-award-winning inventor Richard Little, familiar to many in the New Zealand tech industry as the co-founder of robotics company Rex Bionics.
Little says the journey from Rex Bionics to Exsurgo was in many ways a natural progression. “Through my work at Rex Bionics, I became more and more intrigued with the relationship between the biomechanics of the body and the neuroscience of the brain. We also began working on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which are at the heart of Exsurgo’s technology.”
Exsurgo is also progressing other studies to validate the effectiveness of Axon EEG neurofeedback as a treatment and diagnostic tool for neurological conditions including pain, anxiety and depression, migraine, PTSD, and concussion.
Exsurgo is a private company supported by a mix of New Zealand and international investors. Last year it received a $300,000 co-funding grant for product development from Callaghan Innovation.