From The Better India:
For the past 12 years, Bhargav Sri Prakash and his team at FriendsLearn — a bio and health tech startup with offices in Chennai and San Francisco — have envisioned ways to use frontier technologies for a unique cause.
Machine learning-deep learning, neurocognitive computing (AI), neural networks, gamification, AR/VR (metaverse) and mobile app technology — Bhargav’s venture has harnessed these to non-invasively induce a neural response, physiological outcome, and an immune response that is building evidence to prove how to lower the risk of disease, reduce symptoms, and decrease hospitalisation for young children.
“Called Digital Vaccines, they’ve been shown to work by stimulating the brain-gut-immune system at the cellular biomarker level to lower the risk of a wide range of diseases; non-communicable ones like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and cancer; cognitive diseases such as ADHD, dementia; and, recently, infectious diseases like COVID-19,” says Bhargav, CEO and founder of FriendsLearn, in a conversation with The Better India.
These Digital Vaccines fall under an emerging science called digital therapeutics, which seeks to deliver medical care through smartphones, tablets, and similar devices by effecting behavioural change at scale using evidence-backed software solutions.
“A child experiences everything like virtual reality gamified content. That gamified content is delivered via a mobile app called Fooya! This app will have a school grade appropriate collection of content, which is a compilation of neurocognitive training mechanisms,” he says.
In layperson terms, it’s a way by which we are able to message or pulse the brain with stuff that they see. “We don’t do this in an invasive way, but use sensory pathways like sight, touch, and hearing. Those are primary signal pathways and we are able to create certain patterns of neural response in the brain through this gamified content,” explains Bhargav.
Professor Rahul Ladhania, a faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says, “A key principle behind the concept of digital vaccines is of neuro-stimulation leading to transference — while the gamified content neuro-cognitively trains children to make healthier choices in the virtual world, do the children then go on to the real world and start making healthier choices?”
He adds, “Illustrating this with a simple example, say, a child’s digital form enters the game. Through that virtual experience, the child’s brain is directed — through virtual rewards and penalties — to avoid aerated soft drinks that could result in lifestyle diseases like obesity. These games aim to perform neuro-cognitive training on the child’s brain, and the hypothesis is that this leads them to avoid soft drinks in real life. Additionally, this concept also has scope for AI-driven personalisation of these rewards and penalties. Children are not alike, and their brains might respond differentially to these incentives”
Those healthier choices affect their gut and the microbes that live inside them over a period of time. They also impact their blood parameters. So their blood sugar and cholesterol numbers, among other biomarkers, start changing over a period of time.