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Pooja Jain - CogniHealth

Digital help for dementia care…

Pooja Jain - CogniHealth

Digital help for dementia care

Digital technology is becoming increasingly important in healthcare, not just for diagnosis but also for connecting people with available resources – and each other. Edinburgh-based CogniHealth is showing what is possible by developing a “digital companion” called CogniCare for helping people with dementia and their carers, which could be the start of a new type of app to help with many other neurological, psychological and psychiatric conditions...

When you work as a professional carer with people with dementia and their families, you get to learn a lot about this life-changing condition and its impact on the people affected. But not many carers go on to develop an app which promises to “transform dementia care,” and build a new business to market the app.

Hosted by the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Innovations, Pooja Jain was not only inspired by her own academic research to develop the CogniCare app, but has also been able to draw on her personal experience as a professional carer. She says she has “a passion for human cognition” and has studied the impact of memory loss, but she has also seen the impact of dementia face to face.

Jain came to Scotland in 2011 to do a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Sciences, followed by a Master’s Degree in Neuroscience by Research at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests focused on “cognitive characteristics and interventions for neurological disorders,” including lab-based research into various aspects of Alzheimer’s disease – an interest that now drives her business.

How it all started

The “eureka moment” for Jain was at a neuroscience conference in 2016, when she had a conversation with a man about his personal experience of “living with dementia,” caring for his wife. “Until then, my interest was more academic,” says Jain, “but listening to this man, I could see how dementia impacted people and families in real life, and the difficulties carers were facing – how time-consuming and frustrating it could be. I also realised that dementia is an area of huge unmet need.”

After graduating with her Master's Degree in 2016, Jain returned to India to spend a few months with her family and make plans for her future in Scotland. It was during her visit she started to think about the conversation at the conference and discuss the possibility of using technology to help with dementia care, sharing her ideas with her father Sunil, the Director of Software Engineering at Cisco Systems, based in Bangalore. “My father has a lot of experience in using technology in education and healthcare, and we both agreed that even though technology can be transformative in many different industries and applications, healthcare – and even more so social care – has been somewhat left behind,” says Jain. At this point, Jain made a decision: rather than go on to do a doctorate in Edinburgh, she would develop a solution that could have a real impact on people affected by dementia.

As soon as she came back to Scotland, Jain took a part-time job as a professional carer, and experienced first-hand the issues involved. “I learned a lot about the family dynamics, and out of that experience, CogniCare and the business were born,” she explains.

According to Jain, the key challenges for people with dementia and their carers, aside from the initial diagnosis and ongoing medical treatment, are “what to do, where to go and whom to trust. Technology will never replace human beings when it comes to the everyday problems of care, but it can be an enabler”, says Jain.

As Jain started doing research into digital healthcare solutions, a pattern began to emerge. “There were lots of apps aimed at people with dementia,” says Jain, “but there was nothing that could address the needs of both the person with dementia and their carer, or help with the day-to-day real-life problems faced by many families and carers.”

Many people give up their jobs to look after family members with dementia, and the majority of carers tend to be above average age – people in the 40–65 age range looking after their parents. This encouraged Jain to develop a solution that is not only easy to use, even for people not used to technology, but also tailored to the individual needs of people with dementia and their carers. “Nothing else in the market provides the holistic and personalised support carers need,” says Jain.

The solution emerges

The result of this research is a new app called CogniCare, designed “to improve the quality of lives of those affected by dementia,” by personalising support and helping people to connect with their community, as well as access care information “anytime, anywhere.”

According to Jain, every person with dementia has a unique journey, facing different symptoms that progress at different paces. For example, as dementia progresses, the demands on the carer increase and can be frustrating and stressful. Many carers don’t receive the support they require to understand the symptoms, why it’s happening and what can be done, leading to misunderstandings and accidents that could have been avoided if the carers had known.

The CogniCare app is designed to help carers understand the symptoms by adopting a four-step approach to identify, understand and respond to common symptoms – e.g., aggression, repetitive questions, anxiety, lethargy or inappropriate behaviour – and evaluate different interventions. It also helps identify what triggered the behaviour, to help understand why it happened and address the behaviour – e.g., people with dementia may not be able to communicate their needs, such as hunger or thirst, or may have a low stress threshold, including being sensitive to changes in environment or irritants such as noise. New medicines or alterations in dosage can also cause a change in behaviour, and as the disease progresses, there are pathological changes in the brain which can alter behaviour. Different interventions are suggested by the app, such as music or exercise, as well as medication and environmental cues – e.g., de-cluttering, changing the lighting or looking at photos. Finally, CogniCare helps to evaluate the impact of these different interventions, helping carers note down the effects for future reference, or suggesting a different approach.

To make the app easy to use, it takes advantage of Alexa, the virtual assistant developed by Amazon now used by millions of people worldwide for everything for switching on alarms to looking after people with dementia. Although it’s not designed for diagnosis, the app is used to monitor changes in symptoms and help carers cope. It also provides links to local resources such as Dementia cafés, suggesting local walking groups and other social events which increase social capital (the value of people’s connections). “It’s important to keep the brain engaged,” says Jain, “through physical and mental activities, and bringing people together.”

The CogniHealth team

Jain is now supported by a highly qualified and well-connected team of advisors. The core team – Jain and her co-founders Giulia Melchiorre and Pranav Chauhan – is backed up by Professor Craig Ritchie (Professor of the Psychiatry of Ageing at the University of Edinburgh), Richard Lewis (Business Consultant), Albert Nicholl (a senior business leader in the Life Sciences and MedTech sector) and Jain's father Sunil Jain (Director of Software Engineering at Cisco Systems in India).

Sunil advises the team, based in Bangalore, whilst Pooja and her core team work closely with families, healthcare specialists, academics and organisations, such as Alzheimer Scotland, to develop the business in Scotland. “This is a structure that works very well,” says Jain, “even though we are thousands of miles away
from each other.”

The company is keen to make a difference in healthcare, declaring on its website: “People with dementia and carers are at the heart of everything we do. We believe that an insightful understanding of dementia can help create a world where people are free from the fear and heartbreak it brings. Taking care of someone with dementia is not an easy task, and there are many different aspects that need to be considered.”

Early-stage investment

Setting up the business was a totally new experience for Jain and her co-founders – Melchiorre graduated with an MSc in Neuroscience by Research the same year as Jain, whilst Chauhan graduated with an MA (Hons) in Economics and Finance. “Since starting out, I’ve been exposed to lots of things I’ve never done before, like the legal, financial and marketing aspects of business,” says Jain. “Initially, the only thing I thought about was having an impact on people, but now I am running a business. And every day, I have to learn something new.”

Jain got a major boost when Alzheimer Scotland took an interest in what she was doing, soon after the company was set up in April 2018. While she was doing a presentation at Alzheimer Scotland, the Chief Executive, Henry Simmons, passed by and told Jain her solution could be a good fit with Alzheimer Scotland’s new digital strategy. And to back this up, Alzheimer Scotland provided both financial and sector-specific support. Last year, Jain also won an RSE Unlocking Ambition Fellowship worth £50,000, to fund her for a year and provide her with training.

Since then, Jain and her team have been busy improving the app, and building the business. The next step will be to raise seed-round investment, most of which will be spent on a marketing drive.

So what is the size of the market? “There are 700,000 carers in the UK alone,” says Jain, “and an estimated 850,000 people with dementia. The potential is huge.”

As CogniHealth establishes its presence in the market and reaches out to more and more affected families, Jain is already thinking a few years ahead. Dementia will be the main priority for now, but mental health in general (e.g., depression and anxiety) is a similar issue for the people affected, requiring the same level of intelligent support. “Dementia will always be a major global problem,” she says, “but now we are looking beyond.”

Visit: CogniHealth






"Pooja Jain - CogniHealth". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-three)
Printed from on 03/07/20 11:58:45 PM

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