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MedRhythms: Driving movement through music

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MedRhythms is a digital therapeutics company that uses music, sensors and AI-powered software to measure and improve walking.

Its Chronic Stroke therapeutic was granted ‘Breakthrough Device’ designation by the FDA in 2020.

Brian Harris is co-founder and CEO of MedRhythms. The board-certified music therapist shares his story and reveals what’s next for the technology.

When did you decide that music therapy was the career for you?

The very first session of live music therapy I ever witnessed was with a boy who was about 18 years old. He was functioning at about a one-year-old level.

Within the first 10 minutes of that session, he was functioning physically and cognitively at a much higher level than anybody had ever seen before, to the point where his family and the people who worked with him were literally in tears.

It was at that moment that I knew that that this was my calling in life, that I needed to be using music in this way to help people.

But I also realised that there must be a reason why this boy’s brain allowed him to respond that way to music. And if we could answer that question, we could really harness the power of music and help a lot of people.

How did your work with stroke patients at Spaulding Rehab Hospital in Boston lead to you founding MedRhythms?

We saw a lot of improvements in using music to improve walking through an intervention called Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation.

People who had seen their loved-ones transformed by the therapy were asking what they could do to continue the treatment at home.

At the time, there was nothing they could do, which was an awful thing to have to tell people on a regular basis.

We quickly realised that we weren’t going to be able to reach the scale and impact that we had envisioned. The solution was technology.

We shifted our approach to building a digital therapeutics platform to replicate what we were doing as clinicians so that it could delivered in home without a professional present.

How does your Chronic Stroke system work?

Sensors connected to the shoe collect clinical-grade biomechanics data in real time. So things like stride length, symmetry, variability, speed and cadence.

We get about 40 data points for every step that a patient takes. That feeds into our algorithm and then we deliver music via headphones. So it’s a closed loop system.

Our Clinical Thinking Algorithm takes the data from the shoe and then augments or changes the music appropriately to drive the user towards a clinical outcome.

We’re actually customising an intervention to that end user in real time, based upon the neuroscience of music and how it can improve walking.

MedRhythms Cycle

How did you train the algorithm?

It was a long process. We did hundreds of hours of testing with stroke survivors and neurologically healthy individuals.

I would essentially have the system running and would manually make changes to the music via our application. And we would do that over and over again, then pause afterwards and review the data.

Our engineers then coded that decision making algorithm based on what we learned.

What is it about a particular piece of music that gives it therapeutic value over another piece of music?

We think about the therapeutic value of music in two primary ways. One is the objective parameters that are needed to neurologically engage the motor system, like time signature, beat salience and tempo.

Then there’s the subjective element. Research shows that your brain functionally responds better to emotionally salient information or music that you like.

Ideally, we want to find music that people are familiar with and that they like, but that also has these objective parameters.

Tell us about the new MedRhythms partnership with Universal Music Group.

They’re the world’s largest record label and they own nearly 50 per cent of the world’s music. And with our partnership, we get access to their catalogue.

One of our patented processes is our ability to screen any piece of recorded music for those objective parameters and make it therapeutically valuable by adding salience and so on.

Hypothetically, we could use somebody’s favourite song if it fell within that catalogue and make it therapeutically appropriate for their therapy in the moment.

What do you have to do now for your ‘Breakthrough’ Chronic Stroke product to become FDA approved?

Breakthrough Designation was set up to acknowledge products that have the potential to meet an area of high unmet medical need.

When we look at the Chronic Stroke indication, some of these folks are at least three to six months post-stroke. There’s literally nothing else that has been shown to improve walking and that’s typically at that point where insurance stops covering physical therapy.

From here, we need to finish our pivotal large multi-site, randomised controlled trial. We hope to be able to submit the data to the FDA in early 2022 and then we’ll be working with them collaboratively through to approval. We’re very, very close to that.

So, what else have you got planned for the near future?

Right now we’re hyper-focused on getting the Chronic Stroke product through the FDA and commercialising it here in the US. And then the pipeline beyond Chronic Stroke and into these other disease states [such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s].

But this is not just a US problem, right? There are people living all around the world with these impairments. So in the years to come, we’ll be focusing on getting our product to other people across the globe.

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