Biogen to Explore Apple’s Wearable Devices to Monitor Cognitive Health Markers

by Daniel Ojeda
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At the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, Biogen announced it would collaborate with Apple to explore if Apple Watch and iPhone can be used to monitor cognitive health. Together, they will conduct a virtual research study aimed to identify possible markers of cognition and whether these devices can be used to detect mild cognitive impairments. If successful, this could further cement Apple’s place in healthcare monitoring using their wearable devices.

According to a 2017 estimate, the number of people in the US over the age of 65 spans over 49 million. This number is expected to nearly double by 2030. Between 15%-20% of people in this age group suffer from mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is characterized by a decrease in memory, motor skills, ability to plan, or the ability to complete complex tasks. The decline is small enough that it does interfere with the activities of daily living of the individual. However, it is significant enough that the individual and people close to them notice the change.

MCI can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. In studies that followed individuals over 65 for 2 years showed that 14.9% of them developed some type of dementia. However, the current diagnosis is only possible after the cognitive decline becomes noticeable by the patient or family. For this reason, tools that can detect earlier changes in cognition could allow for faster diagnosis and possible interventions.


The Collaboration

Biogen announced that it would conduct a multi-year, observational study that will include participants from multiple age groups and a wide range of cognitive performance. Biogen will use its expertise in neuroscience to analyze data collected from the participants via the Apple Watch and iPhone. The primary goal is to develop digital biomarkers to identify early signs of MCI.

“Cognitive decline can be an early symptom of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. The successful development of digital biomarkers in brain health would help address the significant need to accelerate patient diagnoses and empower physicians and individuals to take timely action,” said Michel Vounatsos, CEO of Biogen. “For healthcare systems, such advancements in cognitive biomarkers from large-scale studies could contribute significantly to prevention and better population-based health outcomes, and lower costs to health systems. Bringing together the best of neuroscience with the best of technology creates a wonderful prospect for patients and public health.”


Apple and Healthcare

Apple has been moving into the healthcare space for several years. Currently, they are mainly expanding into health monitoring with the Apple Watch. This wearable device gives the user information regarding their heart rate, such as notification of irregular rhythm. Additionally, the latest Apple Watch Series 6 can detect blood-oxygen levels. Another feature that is aimed at the growing number of elderly populations is fall detection, which is automatically activated for users over 55 years old. When a fall is detected, this feature allows the user to contact emergency services. If not deactivated, a message is automatically sent to the user’s emergency contact.

Additionally, Apple has experience with other collaborations to validate their technology and expand into healthcare. In 2017, they collaborated with Stanford University to use the Apple Watch to identify atrial fibrillation or irregular heart rhythm. This led to the irregular rhythm notification feature to receive De Novo classification by the FDA.

By Daniel Ojeda, Ph.D.

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