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Can Brain Waves Be Harvested to Treat Sleep Disorders?

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   November 20, 2022

A New York company has received a federal grant to test a digital health platform that captures brainwaves from a healthy sleeper and transplants them into someone with a sleeping disorder.

Imagine using someone else's thoughts to combat sleep deprivation and get a good night's sleep. One digital health company is looking to make that possible.

NeuroLight, a New York-based company focused on neuromodulation, is using a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to, basically, transplant the brainwaves of a healthy sleeper into someone who is struggling to fall asleep.

The science behind this concept was described by Alexander Poltorak, the company's founder and president and a researcher at City College of New York (CUNY), in a September 2021 article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

"Brain states, which correlate with specific motor, cognitive, and emotional states, may be monitored with noninvasive techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) that measure macroscopic cortical activity manifested as oscillatory network dynamics," Poltorak wrote. "These rhythmic cortical signatures provide insight into the neuronal activity used to identify pathological cortical function in numerous neurological and psychiatric conditions. Sensory and transcranial stimulation, entraining the brain with specific brain rhythms, can effectively induce desired brain states (such as state of sleep or state of attention) correlated with such cortical rhythms. Because brain states have distinct neural correlates, it may be possible to induce a desired brain state by replicating these neural correlates through stimulation."

According to a press release issued this week, Neurolight will use the $255,851 NSF Small Business Innovation Research grant to create a platform that records the cortical signatures, or brainwaves, of a healthy sleeping person and, through a mobile digital health device, transmit them into the brain of someone dealing with a sleeping issue like insomnia to train them to sleep.

"We propose that brain states may thus be transferred between people by acquiring an associated cortical signature from a donor, which, following processing, may be applied to a recipient through sensory or transcranial stimulation," Poltorak said in the journal article. "This technique may provide a novel and effective neuromodulation approach to the noninvasive, non-pharmacological treatment of a variety of psychiatric and neurological disorders for which current treatments are mostly limited to pharmacotherapeutic interventions."

Company officials said the research may help millions of people dealing with sleep issues, and note that seven of the 15 leading causes of death in the US have been linked to sleep deprivation.

The science of neuromodulation, or harvesting the power of electrical impulses for therapeutic benefit, dates back to 1967, when neurosurgeon C. Norman Shealy developed an implantable dives to use deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat chronic and intractable pain. Early efforts ran into problems, mainly due to the technology of that era, but in 1974 physicians developed less invasive electrodes that could do the job without damaging the spinal cord.

Today's technology has evolved significantly since 1974, with digital health devices and platforms that can capture and transmit without damaging the human body. Neurotech Reports estimates that the worldwide neuromodulation industry will see $13.3 billion in business in 2022, addressing issues ranging from pain to chronic conditions like epilepsy, migraines and urinary incontinence.

NeuroLight officials say they're the first company to develop the technology for "transplanting mental states from one person to another," and early, small trials have been positive. Should this NSF-backed project see positive results, the company could be eligible for as much as $17 million in additional funding to continue the work.

"We are honored and gratified to have been awarded this highly competitive grant by the NSF," Poltorak said in the press release. "This grant will support R&D efforts to develop a prototype for the proof-of-concept study."

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


The science of neuromodulation, or harvesting the power of electrical impulses for therapeutic benefit, was launched in 1967, with technology designed to treat chronic and intractable pain.

The technology has improved siginificantly since then, and is now used in therapies to treat chronic conditions like epilepsy, migraines and urinary incontinence.

NeuroLight is working on a digital health platform that is designed to copy the brainwaves of a healthy, sleeping person and use them to train the brain of a person with a sleeping disorder, such as insomnia.

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