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Making [brain] waves in the UK by Richard Little, CEO, Exsurgo

At Exsurgo, our vision is to unlock the power of neuroscience to ease suffering and enhance human potential. We’re on a mission to transform the way the world treats neurological problems with effective, accessible and non-pharmaceutical solutions that harness the latest in science, technology, engineering and big data. 

It’s a lofty goal, but a recent clinical trial in the UK that tested our Axon system as a treatment for chronic pain indicates we’re on the right track. 

Axon monitors a chronic pain sufferer’s brain activity via a customised headset and uses that data to help them ‘retrain’ how their brains respond to nerve signals from the body. After a few weeks’ training, their pain sensations are reduced. 

I know at first reading this might sound far-fetched, but Axon is based on the established science of EEG (electroencephalography) neurofeedback. EEG has been around for almost a century and has been used in neurofeedback research since the early 1960’s, including by NASA – who used neurofeedback to train pilots.

One in five people around the world suffer from chronic pain (pain that persists for longer than three months) and it costs countries hundreds of billions of dollars every year in direct health costs and lost productivity. Not only that, the over-prescription and misuse of opioids to treat chronic pain – particularly in the US, where nearly 50,000 people died from opioid-involved overdoses in 2019 – are compelling reasons why we need to find new, better methods of treatment. 

We believe Axon is one of those methods. It’s affordable, non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive and, on the evidence to date, has no side effects. Rather than addressing pain via a drug prescription, we want to treat pain via an Axon subscription. 

In medical science, robust clinical evidence is essential and we’re starting to gather that proof. In the UK trial, led by pain specialist Dr Nick Birch, people who suffered from various forms of chronic pain were given an Axon system to use at home, with clinical oversight. All they had to do was put the Axon headset on for half an hour per day, four days a week for 8 weeks and play a series of neurological exercises (in the form of simple animated games) on a tablet or smartphone. 

We were confident we would see significant improvements and we did: 100% of the participants reported a reduction in pain, and 50% achieved a clinically relevant reduction in pain of at least 30%. 

Chronic pain often feels inescapable and all-consuming, so it was also great to see the impact Axon had on other areas of the participants’ lives, with 94% of them saying their sleep, mood and overall quality of life had improved. Anxiety and depression levels also decreased. 

This wasn’t just a short-term fix, either. The improvements experienced after eight weeks of neurofeedback training with the Axon system were sustained up to 26 weeks.

The experiences of trial participants reinforced how much of a positive impact they got from the Axon training. This comment, from a 43-year-old woman who had gone through two spinal fusion operations and was suffering from chronic pain in her knees, was typical: “[The pain] is much less noticeable, less in the foreground, more in the background … I’m blown away by how much less pain I’m in these days. I feel a lot more agile; I didn’t ever imagine I would get back on a horse again…feeling more happy, relaxed, more chilled out.”

It was so gratifying to see responses like that and to see our technology having such a major impact on peoples’ lives. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning – and keeps us innovating. 

The UK trial was intentionally small, involving 16 participants, so our next step is to add to the body of evidence through a much larger study involving over 100 pain patients that we are going to undertake in Auckland,  New Zealand (if you suffer from chronic pain, live near Auckland or the Upper North Island and want to be involved, get in touch).

We’re not stopping at chronic pain. One of our taglines is ‘mindpower to the people’ and we are also planning to conduct studies on Axon’s ability to treat other neurological conditions like concussion, anxiety, depression and PTSD. And we have a range of other neuroscience-related solutions under development as treatment solutions in other areas such as stroke rehabilitation.

We started our Exsurgo journey about five years ago, and most of that time has been spent in backroom R&D. It’s really exciting to be at the stage now where we can share real-world experiences of people’s lives improving from Exsurgo technology. 

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