Up to 43.8 million Americans suffer from mental health issues, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). However, as the nonprofit Mental Health America points out, there are more than 13 categories of mental health professionals in the US from whom patients can seek help.
Now consider China, where there is a massive stigma regarding mental illness, and a dearth of medical personnel going into neuropsychiatry. Reasonable estimates say 178 million people in the country could be suffering from mental illness and going untreated.
It’s a problem Jack Z. Chen, founder and CEO of Cognitive Leap—a company jointly headquartered in the US and China—believes can be addressed through virtual reality. PCMag went to Pasadena, California, to get a demo.
Chen was born in China, and came to the US in 1986 to complete his college education, working three jobs to pay for it. He made his name during the financial crisis, when transnational deals started falling apart. Under the aegis of his own investment company, Transworld Capital Group, Chen presided over the successful completion of the $450 million dollar sale of Nexteer, the steering and driveline systems division of General Motors, to a private/public consortium in Beijing he represented.
Now he’s taken a step back from Transworld’s day-to-day operations, and is focused on improving mental health in China.
“Here in California, if someone says ‘I’m going to see my therapist’ it’s nothing—like saying, ‘I’m going to the gym to see my trainer,'” Chen pointed out. “But, in China, if someone labels you as ‘mentally ill,’ it’s very damaging to your reputation. It’s still a taboo there. Historically it’s not even considered a ‘real’ illness. People think crazy people should be locked up, hidden away.”
As a result, Cognitive Leap focuses on “Brain Health,” a term that works better in Chinese characters and is more well-received in the region than “mental illness.”
Chen started Cognitive Leap in September 2015 with co-founders Shan Zhong, who worked on medical devices at Johnson & Johnson, and Walter Greenleaf, Ph.D, a research scientist at Stanford.
“I always liked technology. Shanghai Jiao Tong university, where I first studied, is known as the MIT of China,” Chen explained. “Then, about two years ago, I had the chance to experience some VR and I knew this was next for me.
“After doing big financial deals for many years, I really wanted to turn my attention to making a difference in the world; build something significant from the ground up, addressing the problems of humankind,” he said. “The Chinese population is probably the most stressed out society in the world. I asked myself, ‘what can I do to help?'”
Cognitive Leap started with a clinical VR ADHD assessment tool for children to identify, monitor, and treat mental health issues early on. A ping on Chen’s tablet let us know the latest Unity build of this product had arrived, so we gathered around a WeChat video to watch a sequence from developers in China.
Cognitive Leap’s virtual classroom replicates a familiar environment for young patients who are equipped with a VR headset and asked to participate in a set of tasks, with varying levels of distraction going on around them. The system senses and records clinical variables including head movement, biofeedback, and other changes within the somatosensory nervous system. Obviously it’s in Mandarin, but you get the idea pretty swiftly due to the magic of visual communications.
Cognitive Leap is currently piloting its ADHD assessment tool at a clinic in Taiwan. Due to its immersive environment, Cognitive Leap believes its platform is superior to paper-based ADHD tests or even questionnaires taken via digital devices. Early results have been encouraging.
“Based on our research and patents, registered in Hong Kong, Cognitive Leap is now acknowledged as an objective high level example of machine intelligence within a controlled environment,” said Chen. “We collect, store and analyze data, and our system replicates the neuropsychiatric gold standard of tests, taking it to the next generation through clinical VR.”
Cognitive Leap’s business model will be B2B for medical and non-medical institutions, based on a managed services software delivery model. It’s interesting to note that, due to the level of comfort around technology within China, Cognitive Leap’s platform is more likely to be adopted by its citizens and institutions than human-based methods.
Of course, on the dark side, having a medically acceptable technology solution that diagnoses millions of Chinese children with ADHD opens the door to Big Pharma on a massive scale. After all, the definition of ADHD is scarily vague. But, if you’re familiar with the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, there are many routes to body-mind harmony before chemical intervention, and Cognitive Leap is sensitive to this.
Next steps include using VR as a clinical solution to not only treat, but prevent or slow down mental deterioration, particularly for the elderly. “Projects in development now include those to help rehab patients with traumatic brain injury, stroke and mild cognitive impairment in patients,” Chen said.
Post-Cultural Revolution China leapt from no fixed line telephony infrastructure to a massively wired population, in one generation, Chen pointed out. Cognitive Leap hopes to do the same for its “brain health” trajectory. Considering it’s partially funded by one of the most powerful investors in China, Gong Hongjia, the sky’s the limit.