Monday, April 30, 2012

From Seurat’s dots to ‘seeing’ inside brain

Philip Low, 32, orders lunch at Tapenade, in French. He explains how, when he was 10, his father, an oil and telecom executive, had an adverse reaction to a common tranquilizer of the time, packed a gun in a briefcase and threatened a banker in Switzerland, whom he suspected was cheating him. His father went to prison. Low and his mother were evicted from a seven-story grand maison purchased from the Rothschilds in the center of Paris and abruptly lost their summer residence as well, “a castle” built by Napoleon III in the south of France, to land in a studio apartment.

Months later, the FDA investigated the psychological side effects of the drug, which included “acting out” and violent mood swings, and the Swiss Parliament voted to pardon his father. This made an indelible impression on the young Low.

Low, who has a Ph.D. in computational neurobiology, is the founder and owner of NeuroVigil, an innovative La Jolla wireless diagnostics company whose principal product, the i-Brain, is being used in tests of patients’ brainwaves to tell if they have epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, brain tumors, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other neurological ailments. It also measures sleep states.

Low recently used i-Brain to image the thoughts of Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist crippled by Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hawking gave the mental order to scrunch his right hand, in hopes that the brain waves so generated could be turned into a line of communication on a computer or, much later, perhaps, a command to a robotic arm.

I-Brain works on a single channel and is almost as small as an iPod or the Tic-Tac breath mints box. Anybody — not just a patient — can fit it on their head like an electronic hat, at home, while asleep, or watching TV, and the results can be radioed to a smartphone or doctor. No need to spend an expensive night in the hospital running an EEG with electrodes plastered to one’s scalp.
Implications are major. The news that a soldier in Afghanistan has seemingly gone berserk and killed a dozen civilians is all over the news the week of our lunch. Since the alleged shooter had suffered concussions in Iraq, he could have been tested before being sent on to Afghanistan, Low explains.
A major bread-and-butter use of the i-Brain by pharma companies is to test psychiatric drugs to “see” what is going on in a patient’s brain while the compound is active at low doses in the body — a noninvasive approach.

After an animated discussion with Tapenade’s owner and chef, Jean Michel Diot, on how to redo the restaurant’s great room, Low strolls outside and down a courtyard to the startup’s light-filled offices.
“To think that it all started because of tweety birds!” laughs Low. “I just applied the algorithm to humans.”

He explains how he developed the essential algorithm from his pioneering work on the brains of zebra finches, when he was a grad student flying back and forth between La Jolla and the University of Chicago. For a break or when stumped, he would stroll over to the Art Institute of Chicago and stare at the paintings.

He was especially drawn to Georges Seurat, and by the magical mosaic of receding brush stroke dots that compose Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

“My ‘aha moment’? I realized, looking at Seurat’s dots one day, that neuroscientists were trying to do the wrong thing. They thought that in order to better understand the brain, you had to take the smallest details into consideration, like a Chuck Close-type painting, and all of a sudden I understood Seurat was able to give us a very powerful message because he showed that we could abstract some of these details — the statistical distribution of those dots — and provide objects that we could recognize from far away. So I thought, if instead of agonizing about each millisecond, I developed a new way of visualizing the data and I replaced chunks of time with single dots, then the statistical distribution of those dots would give me a representation of each brain state, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Low’s algorithm, presented at UC San Diego in 2007, became one of the shortest Ph.D.’s on record — one-page, including graph. The graph looks like a very abstracted Seurat painting, sans Parisians. (His thesis was titled “A New Way To Look At Sleep: Separation And Convergence.”)
Low ushers me into his own space at NeuroVigil, complete with long couch, since he often stays until 2 in the morning. Not so startup casual is a plexiglass-covered green blackboard with elaborate chalked calculations preserved underneath. This is Francis Crick’s blackboard from his office at the Salk Institute. Crick, of course, discovered the double-helix shape of DNA with James Watson (and Rosalind Franklin).

When he was 20, Low wrote Crick a letter and was invited out to La Jolla to the Salk.
NeuroVigil’s scientific board has been a rather strong one, including two local Nobel Prize winners (Roger Guillemin, president emeritus of Salk; and Sydney Brenner, former wunderkind in the Crick/Watson lab who developed the implications of messenger RNA), Fred Gage, and Andrew Viterbi, a principal co-founder of Qualcomm, as well as Stephen Wolfram, Sonia Ankoli-Israel, Ron Graham, and Hawking.

Low says that six billionaires are “on standby” to invest for his next round of funding. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” he says. “I’ve made it difficult for them to invest, but rewarding to invest.”
Low can be infectiously unhumble.

But there is sometimes an aware sadness in his young eyes, too.

He tells me a story of going to an important round of meetings with European pharma companies. He’s up early, jogging in the countryside near the corporate offices. Off in the distance, he sees a white, castle-like residence. It hits him. That was his own family’s summer residence, when he was 10, when his father took the wrong prescription drug, and the world first changed, for Low.

“It was an ironic and satisfying moment,” he says.

Free-enterprise zone

Low believes a free-enterprise zone should be created in La Jolla that would allow startup companies to thrive in San Diego and not be tempted to move to Silicon Valley or Boston. He has launched a petition

( and met with or contacted San Diego’s four mayoral candidates. His principal proposal is to remove payroll taxes from bona fide startups, as has been done in San Francisco to entice companies out of Silicon Valley. As for NeuroVigil, Low has solicited a letter from Mayor Jerry Sanders that reads in part, “The City of San Diego is committed to ensuring that
NeuroVigil continues on its path to great prosperity from its home base here in Southern California.”

Steve Chapple’s Intellectual Capital covers game-changing people, ideas and perspectives. He can be reached at intellectual

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