One technology is walking into our lives straight out of science fiction.
Imagine this: A digital avatar of a child (with parents’ permission, of course) is entered into a game in the metaverse. As part of the immersive virtual reality experience, the child’s brain is ‘tuned’ to avoid foods that could later lead to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Thanks to this ‘neuro-cognitive training’ the child avoids unhealthy food even in real life.
In other words, the child has been given a ‘digital vaccine’.
All of this might sound strange or far-fetched, but it is part of an emerging science called ‘digital therapeutics’, which aims to deliver medical care through smartphones, tablets and similar devices. A Chennai-based entrepreneur and founder of the life sciences start-up FriendsLearn, Bhargav Sri Prakash has just been given a patent by the US Patent and Trademark Office, for the ‘systems and methods for digital vaccine’ that he developed as part of the US Carnegie Mellon University’s ‘digital vaccine project’.
Prakash, a mechanical engineer from Chennai’s Anna University, told Quantum that with a digital vaccine there was “no injection, no ingestion”; only the brain is induced through an immersive metaverse experience to develop certain physiological changes to help avoid diseases.
When a pharma company develops a vaccine, it goes to a doctor or a hospital to market it. Prakash’s ‘market’, instead, is a school — digital vaccines work on children by letting their digital avatars experience the positive and negative consequences of their actions, which serve as learnings for real life.
“Video games on mobile devices have great potential to influence a child’s dietary and lifestyle behaviors,” notes a write-up on Carnegie Mellon University’s website. “We find strong evidence of the positive effect of the mobile game on actual food choices and identify strategic game play patterns that are associated with better actual food choices,” it says.
Prakash, 45, played professional tennis in his younger days and represented India in international junior tennis events. After a year in BITS, Pilani, he dropped out to join Anna University, Chennai, to be able to continue playing tennis and pursue his other passion, car racing. (In those days, Chennai had the Sholavaram race track.) In this way, a healthy lifestyle was hardwired into him.
Later, after completing his master’s in automotive engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Prakash started CAD Corporation to provide simulation services to automotive companies. This involved simulating aspects like fuel economy, crash resistance, emissions and performance to help build a better car prototype. CAD Corporation was later taken over by “a Detroit-based automotive company”. In 2005, Prakash started a virtual reality company, Vmerse, to help universities admit students from those strata of society that required affirmative action. Vmerse gave prospective students a virtual feel of the university.
By the time Vmerse was sold to another American company, Prakash had gathered experience in simulation and virtual reality. A fellowship took him to Kansas, where he worked with Dr Amanda Bruce, a renowned neuroscientist who was using functional MRI (FMRI) scans to study the behaviour of children, to see which part of the brain was causing the risk of metabolic diseases in children.
Says Prakash: “Having experience in virtual reality and simulation, we found that we could actually simulate a set of scenarios involving foods and games and also deliberately send messages to the brain — so that we could link these areas with working memory, self-regulation, rewards.”
As the digital avatar goes through a game in metaverse, a lot of data about the child’s behaviour is gathered; artificial intelligence processes this data to decipher which kinds of experiences the child should be exposed to, in order to facilitate “implicit learning”.
By repeatedly creating associations between certain actions and their consequences in the virtual world, such as falling ill or securing a reward, the child could be nudged towards a healthy lifestyle.
Thus, a digital vaccine was born.
This, in a way, is the opposite of how advertisements of food companies are meant to work. For example, using popular cartoon characters on food products to woo young buyers.
In the last two years, “we realised that we are in a position to also boost the immune system to lower the risk of infectious diseases,” Prakash says.
But does it actually work? Yes, it does, says Prakash. In 2013, the researchers did the first human trials at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston’s Children’s Nutrition Research Centre. Children were seen “to walk away from Coca-Cola” at the cafeteria. Incidentally, the digital vaccine project of CMU has developed “a software platform for neuro-cognitive training and habit formation,” called ‘fooya!’, to positively influence children’s food choices.
Prakash’s peers and seniors applaud his work. In an email to Business Line, Dr Ramayya Krishnan, Dean, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University, says: “The work of Bhargav Sri Prakash and his innovation team, along with researchers and scientists of the digital vaccine project aims to find solutions for global-scale societal health problems through new frontiers of neural networks and metaverse technology for disease prevention. The grant of a patent by the USPTO in this exciting new field is a signal of the defensible value in translating transformational research from our labs for application in the real world.”
Prakash’s digital vaccine adds to the product suite of ‘digital therapeutics’, a growing branch of medicine. According to a report in MedAdNews magazine, the market for digital therapeutics is expected to grow from $3.4 billion in 2021 to $13.1 billion in 2026, at a CAGR of 31.4 per cent. In the US, companies like Pear Therapeutics and Kaia Health have been making waves with products like reSET (Pear) for substance abuse disorder and MSK (Kaia) for musculoskeletal pain. These products are delivered through smartphones, but are said to be different from wellness apps because they undertake rigorous randomised control tests before launching. There is a ‘Digital Therapeutics Alliance’, whose website, www.dtxalliance.org, lists allied companies and products.
But Prakash’s invention is the first vaccine.