This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.
Health and medicine-based apps often get a bad reputation because most app development companies don’t put the research and development dollars into making them clinically and scientifically accurate. That could be doubly severe for brain-focused apps that need a steeper verification process and sophisticated accuracy for imaging.
More app companies, especially those linked with colleges and universities, are putting work into boosting their science-based app clout. Professors at some universities, such as the University of Georgia, develop startups and license the products straight from campus. Other college-linked institutes, such as the Interactive Media Technology Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology, work directly with corporations to test the validity of their health apps. Other apps, such as Headspace and Joyable, cite existing research about the benefits of meditation or therapy and include doctors or health experts on their boards of directors to claim validity.
At the same time, even the strictest science geek can appreciate a handy iPhone reference or a fun 3D model. We’re fascinated with the way the brain works and how it affects our daily functions, as well as the problems we may experience from it malfunctioning. Whether you’re looking for a handy neuroscience reference or trying to diagnose a headache, this list of apps will help you delve into the brain and the questions you have about it.
1. 3D brain models
Turn, spin and poke your way around the brain with the three top 3D model apps on the market. 3D Brain allows you to rotate 29 interactive structures, such as the temporal and frontal lobes. Investigate the way each brain region functions, what happens when it is injured, and how it is related to mental illness. Find links to case studies and modern research. Similarly, Brain Tutor HD uses rendered head and brain models, as well as fiber tracts created from real human MRI scans, to “look inside” the brain. Created by the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation, the FINR Brain Atlas also shows 3D brain structures, injuries and resulting illnesses such as aneurysms, strokes, and hemorrhages.
2. Brain news
Can’t get enough of the latest studies about the brain? BrainSights pulls together several sources to filter the news for you about brain, neuroscience and psychology research daily. You can filter the news outlets and journals you want to include, in addition to tagging and social media integrations so you can save and share the stories you like most. If you prefer to search through the news yourself, journals such as the Journal of Neuroscience and Neurology have their own apps so you can see the latest full issues in context.
3. Head pain
If you’re more interested in looking for a diagnosis that will help, tread carefully. Brain and head injuries are serious, so only a certified professional can help accurately. If you want to track your issues or learn initial facts about your concerns, however, give them a try. My Cluster Headache allows you to track the duration, intensity and treatment of a headache to help you find a pattern and have a clear conversation with a doctor. You can track your treatments and how they help your headaches, too. For those on the athletic field, Concussion Assessment & Response may help the next time a player is bonked on the head. The app gives instructions for assessing a concussion, tracking recovery and testing whether an athlete is ready to return to the field. For a more general look at neurological disorders, symptoms and tests, turn to the 5-Minute Neurology Consult. Choose carefully when you search for it — you’ll also find this series in book and ebook formats, which are more expensive than the app.
4. Memory issues
As with the diagnostic apps, it’s best to turn to a doctor when there are serious concerns about memory loss and cognitive functioning, but a few on the market are recommended as the most reliable brain training tools that can go hand-in-hand with doctor visits. The Memory Orientation Screening Test, or MOST, measures memory and executive function, particularly for older patients. It’s most focused on the measurement, rather than the improvement, of mental decline. Similarly, Neurotrack — which has received funding from the National Institutes of Health and others — uses eye tracking technology to detect signs of declining memory. The technology is still developing, but you can pay to take a test and then track progress on an app later.
5. Nerve connections
Now think about the nerves and extended nervous system connected to your brain. If you have tingling sensations in your hands or feet and want to track that through your body, consider an app like Nerve Whiz, which was created at the University of Michigan, to understand how the complex nervous system and anatomy works. Click on the muscles that are weak or the numb areas on your body to learn more. Similarly, the Neuro Localizer also shows nervous system maps to help “localize the lesion” or understand a neurologic issue in the body. Funny enough, it was also created by the University of Michigan neuroscience team, and this one focuses on symptoms and diagnosis help in particular. An Easter egg plus? If prodded enough, the app also dishes out candid life advice and tells jokes about neurologists (and gingerbread cookies, apparently, which is what you initially click on as the model to show where your symptoms are).
6. Neurology exams
Now we’re appealing to specific nerds out there. If you’re really into neurology, you may want to know how to give an exam to yourself or others. The NeuroExam 101 app walks you through the procedures, complete with pictures and step-by-step instructions. You can read, listen and watch videos for each component, which includes assessments of strength, coordination, sensations, reflexes, balance, gait, motor control, and cranial nerves. As with the others, this app is great for starting out — but certainly not the expert level track.
Take it a step further, and you can tiptoe carefully into the land of therapy beyond diagnosis. This is the freshest territory, of course, so pair this with more formal advice from a doctor. ViaTherapy, in particular, pulls in more than five years of work by an international panel of researchers in psychiatry, neurology, epidemiology and occupational therapy. They created an app focused on stroke rehabilitation that includes questions and tracking of motor control, language, pain, and knowledge translation after stroke. It includes the latest post-stroke therapies and can develop a customized plan for patients. Additional apps are being created beyond stroke therapy, of course, but this is a solid, reliable place to start.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.