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New gadget to show when your brain works best

Cerebral activity displayed through light and sound to boost productivity

Conceptual image of the brain. The brain's areas, smell, taste, vision, memory and understanding of language, short-term memory and action programming, treatment of sensory information (staircase). (Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

TOKYO -- Ever wondered what it would be like to see what people are thinking?

While it may stop well short of letting you read someone's mind, a system being developed by a Tokyo startup could soon show you just how much a person's gray matter is being engaged.

The product, a prototype at this stage, "visualizes" levels of brain activity with a system of differing colored lights, helping people find out how and when they are most productive.

The product was developed by information technology venture NeU, a company set up through investment from Hitachi High-Technologies and Tohoku University in northeast Japan.

The prototype system comprises an oval-shaped headset that gauges activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that controls memory and learning.

The device then sends data via Bluetooth to a small box that emits different colored lights according to the level of activity -- red for when the brain is most active, followed by orange, yellow, green and blue as the activity wanes. It can also represent the changes using sounds.

Higher levels of activity signify enhanced concentration and retention, and hence increased efficiency.

It is hoped the product can help people tailor work or study schedules based on when their brain is most active.

The headset weighs about 125 grams and the light-emitting device is smaller than a box of tissues, making the whole system easily portable.

Equipment for measuring brain activity visually and aurally has previously been used in medical applications, but according to NeU, this is the first time it has been marketed for household use in Japan.

The company now plans to start testing the system in December, with the aim of commercializing it in autumn 2018.

NeU will lend the prototype to about 10 students taking correspondence courses with N High School, a distance-learning institution established by the Kadokawa Dwango education corporation, and have them list environmental factors that led to increased brain activity.

NeU's in-house tests showed that users tended to experience greater concentration levels when they were taking notes rather than just listening to a class. In some cases, the brain became more active when users had tidied their desks and put away their smartphone.

"If we train ourselves to change our brain activity consciously, we can expect it to help develop a more powerful brain," said NeU CTO Ryuta Kawashima, who is also the director of the Smart Ageing International Research Center of Tohoku University and the man behind the development of the Nintendo game "Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!" 

The method is used in the rehabilitation of patients whose limbs have been paralyzed by stroke.

NeU plans to develop a number of applications using the equipment, all incorporating research findings from Tohoku University.

One option being considered is a brain-training service for Japan's growing numbers of senior citizens.

Also feasible would be a stress-control tool that companies could provide employees as part of measures to improve their health. Research by Hitachi and Tohoku University showed that stress can be reduced by training people to control their brain activity.

Hitachi High-Tech set up NeU in August with entities including Tohoku University by decoupling its brain activity measuring equipment business. The university's venture fund owns a 51.1% stake, while Hitachi High-Tech holds 38.1%.

The company aims to increase sales from about 300 million yen ($2.67 million) at present to 1.5 billion yen in five years' time.

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