Graduate Student Creates App to Aid Brain Recovery

Article Summary
  • Fourth-year Ph.D. candidate Olivia Osborne used a family tragedy as motivation to study brain recovery mechanisms and develop a mobile app that tracks cognitive function.
  • The app complements her research on how stroke cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA)affects the brain and recovery.
  • Osborne hopes to attract funding and expand her team to extend app availability and awareness.

When Olivia Osborne lost her father to glioblastoma, she was inspired to study brain neuropathology and develop solutions to help families grappling with similar, devastating diagnoses.

Now, as a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, her research has led to a better understanding of how stroke affects the brain and its recovery process while also creating NeurOn Therapeutics, an app that allows users to take back control of their cognitive health.

Olivia Osborne holding her phone and displaying the mobile app her team developed.
Ph.D. candidate Olivia Osborne developed a mobile app that tracks cognitive function and offers personalized brain exercises.

“I think the brain is such a nexus of creativity, intelligence and beauty,” Osborne said. “I want to protect this unique ability and teach others about it through my research and by exploring new avenues of therapeutic potential.”

Exploring Brain Pathway Connections

Osborne’s research, funded by an F-31 grant from the National Institutes of Health, explores molecular neurosciences and the interactions at the blood-brain barrier. Using an amyloid mouse model, she investigates molecular pathways to better understand how stroke cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA), a form of amyloidosis, affect the brain and recovery following infarction.

In CAA, patients accumulate amyloid beta, a protein that poses a risk for ischemia and damage to the vessel wall architecture. Osborne notes the importance of understanding the cellular-level impact for someone experiencing both conditions.

“I’ve found a niche of neural progenitor cells close to the brain vasculature that are essential for motor and cognitive functions,” Osborne said. “These cells receive fewer signaling molecules from the damaged blood-brain barrier, which delays the propensity of the NPCs. When they are damaged due to amyloid beta and ischemia, we can understand why there is a worsened recovery in the brain.”

Developing a Cognitive Platform

While research remains a primary focus for Osborne, she is devoted to finding practical solutions for people with neurodegenerative diseases. Current therapies may offer limited relief. But if the damage has progressed, the condition can be difficult to reverse or stop.

Olivia Osborne, sitting with an older man at a table with Ms. Osborne's mobile app and other cognitive exercises
Osborne designed her app with accessibility and simplicity in mind, saying, “Think of your favorite health app on your phone or Apple watch, but now for your brain.”

Patients often lack resources for recovery, which spurred Osborne to create an accessible platform to deliver cognitive exercises.

“I decided to create an easy platform to deliver cognitive exercises and aid in recovery efforts,” Osborne said. “We are combining validated cognitive exercises with machine learning to create a personalized and adaptable neurocognitive recovery platform for patients with neurocognitive diseases and brain injuries.”

Osborne assembled a team of undergraduate computer science students from the University of Miami to code the NeurOn Therapeutics prototype, with support from her husband, Brett Colbert, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at the Miller School. The enterprise secured $5,000 in funding from the Jonathan Rothberg Catalyzer Award pitch competition.

“When you start a company, many people have some idea of a prescribed set of steps that need to happen for success,” Osborne explained. “However, there are so many hurdles and indirect paths that occur. I think the biggest step is to have confidence, start somewhere, surround yourself with the right people and ask for help when needed.”

Combining AI with Neurological Assessments

NeurOn Therapeutics complements traditional medications in patients with brain-injury indications and neurodegenerative diseases. When patients open the app, they undergo a cognitive assessment to identify the location of the brain injury.

Leveraging AI, Osborne and her team tailored and adapted exercises according to each patient’s needs, using cognitive tests including Cued Stroop, Inspection Time, Tower of Hanoi, anagrams and clock drawings. The team collected metrics and digital biomarkers that hold promise for future clinical applications.

“Caregivers are involved every step of the way,” Osborne said. “Patients, caregivers and even their therapists can track cognitive performance over time and have a personalized dashboard of the patient’s brain health performance. Think of your favorite health app on your phone or Apple watch, but now for your brain.”

NeurOn Therapeutics aims to attract U.S. and international investors, expand the team and forge strategic partners for marketing efforts. Version one is set to launch in early 2024 and is compiling a waitlist of interested participants.

“Oftentimes, we graduate and medical students get bogged down with research, but we need to take risks and try something new,” Osborne emphasized. “Through this project, I had the joy of creating something from nothing to help people.”

Tags: brain health, cognition, stroke, technology