NuraLogix co-founder Dr. Kang Lee intended to create a tool to detect children’s lies. But in the process, he revolutionized the way we measure and track general health and wellness
A few years ago, developmental neuroscientist Dr. Kang Lee told a very amusing story at a TED Talk event. Dr Lee, Professor at the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, and co-founder of HealthTech company, NuraLogix, was good friends with Richard Messina, an elementary school principal. Mr Messina told him how he received a call one morning. The caller said, ‘My son Jonny will not be at school today because he’s sick.” Sensing something wasn’t right, Mr. Messina replied, “Who am I speaking to, please?” And the caller answered, “I am my father.”
Dr. Lee felt the scenario nicely summarized three common misbeliefs we have about children and lying: That children are bad liars and adults can easily tell if they are lying; children only start telling lies when they enter elementary school, and if children lie when they are young, it means their characters are flawed and they will be pathological liars for life. His research over the last two decades showed these beliefs are all wrong.
Dr. Lee also wanted to study the physiology and underlying neural mechanisms underlying children’s lying but was stymied by the existing methods. Such methods were not ideal because they required attaching children with many electrodes, a circumstance that drives children to behave rather differently as they know they are being monitored.
“I didn’t want that to be the case,” Dr. Lee says. “I wanted to create a kind of contactless and remote physiological measurement. During the process, my postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Paul Zheng and I invented Transdermal Optical Imaging (TOI) – a novel imaging technology that relies on using video cameras and advanced machine learning methodology to count the spectrum of photons coming out of a face. TOI extracts facial blood flow changes and converts them into biological signals to deduce a person’s physiology such as vitals.”
The discovery alerted the university which encouraged Dr. Lee and Dr. Zheng to start a company and make the technology available to more people. Without any real knowledge of running a business, Dr. Lee decided to meet serial technology entrepreneur and investor, Marzio Pozzuoli. Together, they formed NuraLogix in 2015. “It was tough at the beginning,” Dr. Lee admits. “We wanted the technology to be used in healthcare monitoring, both for research purposes and personal use, but there was not enough data to build it up and map the measurement to ground truth obtained from medical grade devices.
“So, we had to build everything from scratch. We videotaped many people, noted down their vital signs like blood pressure, cholesterol level, heart rate etc, compared the results from facial scans to those obtained from medical grade instruments like the ECG and built a model for each of them.” Two years later, Anura, NuraLogix’s signature mobile app, was live on App Store. Anura requires users to look at their mobile phone camera for about 30 seconds to perform a scan. After which, Anura will be able to provide users with information on their heart rate, breathing rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
Anura also provides more detailed information including body mass index, facial skin age to estimate the age of the users, heart rate variability or the time interval between each heartbeat, cardiac workload, derived via the multiplication of heart rate and systolic blood pressure, a stress index generated off the analysis of heart rate variability and combined details captured during the scan, and a prediction of users’ chances of developing cardiovascular disease, heart attack or stroke in the next few years based on the Framingham Risk Score.
“Given all the information and indexes, users can have a rough estimation of how well or healthy they are now,” Dr. Lee says. But he’s keen to emphasis that Anura is not a medical diagnostic tool. “We hope users will use the app as a guide for them to monitor and potentially change their lifestyle to reduce the risks or likelihood of developing some medical conditions. For example, a person with high blood sugar level may be completely unaware of his condition but he doesn’t know when or how long it takes to manifest into preclinical and even clinical Type Two diabetes. Hence, Anura can provide early warnings, or information to act on, something that doesn’t always happen in a physical examination.
“Moreover, the pandemic has kept patients away from the hospitals, but we need to continue monitoring their vitals and mental health,” Dr. Lee adds. “Since it’s not possible to ship medical grade measuring devices to all patients, perhaps, Anura can be that new health investment that’s going to change how we practice remote telehealth today.”
NuraLogix is currently working on FDA approval. The team hopes to integrate Anura with electronic health records and to combine self-report and physiological information obtained from facial scans to answer more questions about users’ stress, anxiety, and even depression levels.
“We are confident with what Anura can do,” Dr. Lee says. “We hope that the measurements of vitals and estimates of future risks will give physicians rich data to make informed decisions about a patient. At a personal level, we wish to raise users’ awareness about their physical and mental wellbeing and to alert them to seek professional help when needed. We are also working towards affective AI to not just using technology to analyze your facial expressions, but your inner emotions that are highly associated with your physiology and health.”