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05/24/2019

Japan as a major player in health

Amid aging society, latest technology utilized for dementia care

Visualizing cognitive function

People tend to think there is no way to avoid the decline in brain functions caused by aging. However, that is apparently not the case.

Research in recent years has demonstrated that training to place stress on the brain’s prefrontal area enhances cognitive function. But it was hard to easily understand the effects of such training in an everyday environment.

Addressing such needs, a measurement terminal worn on the head went on sale at the end of 2018 as a “presymptomatic solution” for maintaining brain function. NeU Corp., a startup jointly funded by Hitachi High-Technologies Corp. and Tohoku University, developed the product, which can measure activity in the prefrontal area, which is considered the control center of the brain, through blood flow.

Wirelessly connecting to smartphones and tablets, it would enable a wearer to go through training while brain activity is being measured. The results would be shown through scores. The convenience from wearing to measurement is one of its features. Ryuta Kawashima, director of the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer at Tohoku University, who is known as a brain exercise expert, supervised it.

What lies at the base of the device is optical topography, which was developed at the fundamental research center of Hitachi Ltd. in 1995. Wearing such a device allows the measurement of brain activity and its visualization. This technology was used for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as motor neuron disease) as a communicator.

NeU CEO Kiyoshi Hasegawa has long focused his attention on industrial applications of brain science, and was involved in developing such technology as one of the new businesses in the Hitachi group.

Thanks to the widespread health awareness in addition to the advancement of a super-aging society, Hasegawa received positive responses from every generation, saying, “A culture of sensing oneself began to gradually take root.”

One such trend is the increasing popularity of devices worn on the arm that measure various things, including number of steps taken and heart rate. NeU seeks to expand sales of this device not only to consumers directly, but also through training gyms.

Focusing on prevention

“It is an urgent task to address issues of dementia,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the first meeting with relevant ministers on enhancing measures to that end in December. The government is scheduled to compile an outline in June that would serve as a guideline for various policies, after discussing topics, including research on precaution and measures facilitating regional social participation.

The government has mainly implemented policies enabling local communities to offer support to the elderly with dementia based on the Comprehensive Strategy to Accelerate Dementia Measures, known as the New Orange Plan, adopted in 2015. The new outline is expected to have precaution as its main pillar, seeking to work on research on precautionary measures and their construction, as well as the development of new drugs.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry aims to nurture a market for devices and relevant services that could help prevent dementia. The ministry seeks to create a framework with collaboration of local municipalities and private companies that works to demonstrate the effects of relevant measures. It also sets out to establish an evaluation index through professional bodies.

“What’s required is collaboration across a wide variety of consumer goods industries; the development and dissemination of new devices and services are essential,” according to the ministry’s Healthcare Industries Division. Behind this is the fact that the burden is huge for not only dementia patients, but also family members, in addition to the possible social costs.

The government’s growth strategy adopted in 2018 placed the creation of the next generation health care system as one of its main pillars. On the nursing care front, it stresses the acceleration of development and introduction of AI, robots and sensors. The strategy said, “Utilizing the evidence obtained from examining effects, (the government) plans to make an assessment (in that direction) following the next nursing care fee revision.”

ExaWizards’ Ishiyama pointed out, “What would be a key is how much the public and private sectors can collaborate in the following two indispensable areas — obtaining evidence and creating platforms to utilize that evidence.”

There is still a long way to go before a system will be in place in which people can receive benefits in a society where revolutionary technology and services are widely available. The availability of such a system would serve as a touchstone toward the realization of an ageless society in the era of the 100-year life.

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