Detecting seizures with a portable emergency EEG—in just six minutes

CEO: Jane Chao
Based: Mountain View, California
Founded: 2015

The scoop: Only in the last 10 years or so have doctors started to understand that seizures aren’t always associated with convulsions, and a patient lying in the intensive care unit or emergency department may still be having a seizure event that could lead to permanent brain injury or death.

In fact, 90% of seizures in the ICU are nonconvulsive and can only be detected by an electroencephalogram, or an EEG. The problem is that access to an EEG can take hours, but brain damage can occur in minutes—and the time taken before drug treatment is critical.

Ceribell’s solution is a portable EEG that can deliver a seizure diagnosis in a few minutes, and, even more crucially, if no neurologist is available in person.

What makes Ceribell fierce: “We saw how seizure patients in the ICU and ED in even the best U.S. hospitals suffered from delayed treatment due to lack of EEG,” says CEO and co-founder Jane Chao. “Some suffered major neurological deficits while others simply didn’t make it—we wanted to do our part and help improve patient care.”

Only around 5,000 technicians in the U.S. can set up an EEG, and only another 6,000 specialists can read the results. With around a million in-patient EEGs being carried out each year, that means access to the technology isn’t widely available and suffers from long delays, particularly out-of-hours.

As a result, ICU and ED doctors often have to treat patients without a diagnosis, which can lead to over- or under-treatment, and is costly to the healthcare system and puts patients at risk.

Ceribell’s solution is an EEG system that consists of a disposable headband and a mobile recorder that acquires and transmits data via the cloud for a specialist to review. The system can be set up in minutes by any healthcare provider on hand, and also allows for simple bedside triage—even by nonspecialists—by using a feature known as a “brain stethoscope.”

This can detect the most serious seizures by converting the EEG signal into sound, and gives a simple yes/no readout, with testing showing 96% accuracy after simple training. In case you’re wondering, normal brain activity sounds like white noise, while a seizure is a bit like a slightly creepy giggle.

The Ceribell EEG system was approved by the FDA for use in emergency and intensive care settings in 2017, but eventually the company hopes to extend its use to include paramedics. The company carried out an initial launch of the device in California last year and has succeeded in getting it into all four of the main hospital chains in the state—for many reasons, not the least of which being its ability to save money.

It’s estimated that providing traditional, 24-hour EEG support can cost a hospital around $2 million a year, says Chao, while Ceribell’s device can be deployed for less than 10% of that.

A broader U.S. rollout will start later, and in the meantime Ceribell is working to raise awareness of nonconvulsive seizures and the harm they can do. The company has a multicenter trial due to read out data later this year that it hopes could help get the device included in clinical guidelines, and is also working on new applications for the technology, such as in epilepsy and other neurological conditions.

Meanwhile, it seems the device is starting to generate something of a buzz. Last year, it picked up a coveted Good Design Award last year in the medical category from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, and is also due to be featured on PBS’ award winning Information Matrix educational show in the coming weeks.