This Buddhism-Inspired Wearable Device Pledges to Slay Anxiety
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his heartbeat sensors could help ease anxiety remotely in a time of deep despair.
It takes courage for a man to wander around San Francisco wearing his girlfriend’s pink bra, the lingerie securing a stethoscope to his partially exposed chest. Yet that’s exactly what Rohan Dixit did so he could listen to his heartbeat in real time. “Necessity is the mother of innovation,” says the 33-year-old neuroscientist, laughing
What emerged from that day’s awkward contraption was a stress-relieving chest patch that’s exciting investors and scientists alike with its promise to reimagine remote access to mental health care. It’s a mission more pivotal than ever, as millions of people around the world are confined at home, wondering what the future holds amid a brewing recession and a debilitating pandemic.
While some of us are barely able to get out of our pajamas, Dixit has been hard at work to, among other things, leverage relationships that his company, Lief Therapeutics, has built with suppliers in China. The goal? To create a new supply chain of personal protective equipment for the U.S. at a time hospitals face a severe shortage of masks. They’ve secured an order for 50,000 masks so far and are hoping to get “many times that,” Dixit says.
Yet while Dixit’s charitable effort is notable, it’s hard medical science that is at the core of his business: a mental health program that could revolutionize at-home care for people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a host of other conditions. Worn under a shirt, the patch measures heart rate variability (HRV) in real time, teaching users to self-regulate their body in moments of extreme stress or anxiety, and optionally connecting them with a virtual physician. It comes as we brace for a likely avalanche of disorders borne from social isolation and economic angst.
“Where the long-term impact will be is dealing with the mental health consequences and the suffering from the tragedy, which is already unfolding before us,” Dixit says. “This is definitely a growth experience for a generation.”
Founded in 2015, Lief Therapeutics has raised $1.7 million across three rounds of funding, according to Crunchbase. It has delivered 3,000 of the patch devices and collected almost 1 billion heartbeats from users so far. Most health care companies take years to get regulatory approval and buy-in from doctors for their products: In January, the company released its Food and Drug Administration–approved smart patch, Lief Rx, which is already covered by most insurance providers. In clinical trials, the patch was found to be effective in reducing anxiety levels in 88 percent of study participants over eight weeks.
The device also “gives people a guided breathing exercise through vibrations,” says Ty Canning, a clinical psychologist who works as an informal adviser to Lief Therapeutics. “It’s a discreet exercise, so they can use it in the moment.” Think Headspace-like meditation techniques matched with Fitbit-esque data collection and backed up by electrocardiogram heart tracking devised by Dixit, who boasts degrees from Northwestern, Stanford and Harvard.
“As a mental health biomarker, HRV is extremely promising, and Lief has designed a device to both measure and improve it,” Nolan Williams, director of interventional psychiatry clinical research at Stanford University, said in a statement.
Dixit’s lifelong path to ease the world’s anxieties began while he was dealing with his own angst as a teenager in Lexington, Kentucky. The son of Indian immigrant doctors, he read a pamphlet on meditation titled “Freedom From Sadness”; he remembers thinking it had changed his brain for good. “That became my life mission: to understand what had changed, and maybe find ways to help other people find that too, through science and technology,” Dixit says.
After pursuing neurological research at Stanford in 2008–09, Dixit headed to Dharamshala, India, where the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetan monks live in exile. “I just showed up there with a backpack full of equipment and a smile,” Dixit says. He hoped to record the monks’ heartbeats and brain waves, and they agreed. Dixit ended up staying for nine months.
In 2010, Dixit returned to the U.S. to work on a groundbreaking study led by Harvard scholar Sara Lazar, which quantified the powerful effects of meditation on healing brain trauma.
Soon after, Dixit invented BrainBot, a headset to help people with PTSD through neuroimaging, building from his glimpse into the minds of those Tibetan monks. But Dixit concluded he needed to build a device that was less conspicuous to wear if he wanted more people to adopt treatment. Hence that day in 2014, when he looked around his nurse girlfriend’s apartment and saw the stethoscope, and the bra. “I actually didn’t show her right away because I was afraid she would make fun of me,” Dixit admits.
What excites him most about a wearable treatment for anxiety is that it doesn’t have the addictive and debilitating side effects common with drugs. “It’s teaching you a [breathing] skill you can use yourself. Once you’ve got it, you can wean yourself off the device,” Dixit says. He understands that means he’ll never earn the profits that pharma companies do. But “the main thing we do as a mental health company is providing affordable access to telemedicine,” Dixit says. LiefRx costs $299, and in many cases patients may only have to contribute their copay.
He still faces obstacles in reaching those who need help. Eight out of 10 workers with a mental health condition report that “shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Practically, Dixit will also have to convince skeptical consumers to wear a Wi-Fi-connected patch that some may find uncomfortable. “It’s thin, it’s flexible, but you’re carrying the device on your chest and when it’s hot or you’re exercising, the sweat can [cause problems],” Canning says. Yet he remains impressed by Dixit’s work so far: “For a scientist to become a CEO and businessperson has been awesome.”
And that’s just one of the many hats Dixit wears. He’s also working on a device to kill airborne viruses using light, planning a City Council run in Berkeley for the democracy-focused Internet Party and, as a minimalist van-life enthusiast, he dreams of escaping it all. But first, Dixit has a more immediate task at hand: to set us at ease in a moment of deep anxiety. “I’d like people to think that I was kind, and I tried to help,” he says.