Cork-based start-up CergenX is aiming to make brain health monitoring part of standard newborn screening, enabling healthcare providers to identify and diagnose hidden issues at an earlier stage and offer better outcomes for babies.
CergenX will use artificial intelligence to detect abnormal brain activity in babies at birth. It is estimated that at least five in every 1,000 newborn babies may have a brain injury of some degree, but it is difficult to diagnose until the child is older. The CergenX algorithms will help to pinpoint potential problems with brain activity, enabling early intervention by medical professionals.
The company is taking the first steps in developing a device that will include the algorithms to recognise abnormal brain activity, a device to fit to baby’s head to carry out the screening, and a tablet or similar device to run the software.
Chief scientific adviser and cofounder Prof Geraldine Boylan said the algorithms will not replace doctors’ expertise, but will augment it.
“We like to think of it as augmented intelligence; it’s not replacing the clinical test. It’s augmenting the clinical exam of newborn babies and giving more information about brain function,” she said.
Founded in 2021 by Prof Boylan, chief executive Jason Mowles and chief technology officer Sean Griffin, CergenX is a spin-out from the Infant Research Centre in University College Cork, which developed a neonatal screening algorithm that could identify seizure activity in newborns.
The start-up says at least five in every 1,000 newborn babies may have some degree of brain injury, which may not be detected until the child is older and shows issues with development. The current method of assessing brain function is through electroencephalography (EEG) which measures the tiny electrical impulses of the brain. This can be complex, time consuming and not available in all hospitals.
The CergenX technology aims to enable early intervention by medical professionals to improve outcomes for newborn babies. It will also enable screening to be carried out where EEG equipment is not available, in smaller healthcare facilities.
Prof Boylan said the decision was taken to commercialise the research to open the benefits up to babies everywhere, and expand it beyond the detection of seizures, making it similar to the routine hearing screenings carried out.
“Babies have hearing screen screening done at birth. Why aren’t we making sure that the brain activity is within the normal range?” she said. “It won’t be like a full EEG, it’s just going to be a screener. But if that shows up anything suspicious then it will mean you have to have further tests. We’re trying to make this more accessible for all babies.”
The algorithm could potentially screen premature babies to assess their brain activity, or monitor babies who have suffered a lack of oxygen to pinpoint which babies would benefit from treatments such as cooling.
Mr Mowles said the company was in discussions with medical device manufacturers interested in incorporating its software solutions into their devices. It is a process that could take three to four years to get the product to market, but Mr Mowles is optimistic that it could be sooner, given the success of the infant research.
“Over the next six to nine months, our target is to get our minimum viable product. That may not look as slick as the final end-user product, but it’ll be something that will work and that we can demonstrate will work, that the algorithms are doing what they should do,” he said.