Spiro Pantazatos Presents 'My Brain and Me' at the 2019 NYC Media Lab Combine

Photo Credit: Craig Warga Photography

In April, Spiro Pantazatos, PhD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurobiology in Psychiatry, presented his lab’s project, My Brain and Me, at the 2019 NYC Media Lab Combine (Demo Day). According to Media Lab’s website, “NYC Media Lab's Combine is a venture platform to advance entrepreneurship in emerging media technology. The Combine offers a lean startup accelerator for university startups, corporate intrapreneurship programs, and executive education. Its goal is to help entrepreneurs and innovative companies take advantage of NYC Media Lab's community and the City's thriving technology ecosystem.”

We spoke with Pantazatos about how he found his way to Columbia Psychiatry, his My Brain and Me project, and his experience at the NYC Media Lab Combine.

How long have you been here at Columbia Psychiatry?

I’ve been at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) for a while. I began my PhD training in 2004 in the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics. I also trained in biomedical informatics and earned my PhD in 2013 in the functional neuroimaging lab advised by Joy Hirsch (who is now at Yale). A main reason I stayed here for postdoctoral training was that I live nearby, and I didn’t want to have to move and retrain my cats to use a different toilet (toilet training them took me a grueling 6 months!). I was fortunate to find an available position and continue my career development and training as a postdoc in psychiatric genomics with John Mann and then as an Assistant Professor in the Psychiatry Department. 

How did the idea for My Brain and Me come about?

In 2014, I published a paper linking birth season to adult brain structure using a public MRI dataset that included birthdates. For a summary of the article, see WIRED and Le Monde (if you read French). I wanted to extend and replicate the findings in other publicly available datasets, but there were none that included birthdates because it is identifying information and is stripped from the data (so as to be HIPAA compliant). 

MRI scan recipients often receive a digital copy of their scan on CD. This led me to wonder, why not collect scans and information directly from participants online? It would be a cost-effective approach to build a neuroimaging dataset by repurposing pre-existing brain scans. I thought a lot about what types of information can be extracted and returned to participants as incentives for contributing their scan. What makes people interested in their own brain? I myself was very interested in how my brain is different due to many years of music training. During my predoctoral training, I had my brain scanned for a study and saw that I was outlier on a plot of white matter tracts between auditory and motor cortex!

Similar to recreational genetics sites like 23andMe, the MRI crowdsourcing approach can be used to create a comprehensive and rich dataset linking brain imaging data to information collected across the course of people’s lives. It’s not as scalable as spitting in a tube and mailing it, but based on feedback so far, the idea seems very much worth pursuing.

Photo Credit: Craig Warga Photography

What got you excited about the Media Lab opportunity?

We’ve submitted applications to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund development of our My Brain and Me project, but with no luck so far. A supportive reviewer suggested commercial funding for the project. Last Fall, I saw an email for an information session for the NYC Media Lab Combine early stage accelerator program. The program comes with a small $10,000 grant and a free course to help academics explore commercial viability of projects coming from the lab.

I applied along with my lab members, Mike Schmidt and Katie Surrence. We partook in an intensive 3-month course in the lean startup methodology that involves collecting insights through 100 one-on-one interviews. The feedback helped extend and refine our ideas, think about potential business models, and understand who the customers are and why they would want to engage with the platform. We see this evolving into a digital media platform that makes neuroscience engaging, accessible and useful to everyday people, while allowing them to help speed up the pace of neuroscience and mental health research.

Photo Credit: Craig Warga Photography

So, what’s next?

We will continue developing our “MVP”: a secure web interface that allows participants to upload a brain scan and in return interact with a neuroanatomically labeled, 3D rendering of their own brain in the web browser. At the end of our pitch on demo day, the majority of audience members voted that we should form a company. Over the next year we will explore that route, and also seek to raise at least $500,000 in pre-seed funding to help us achieve our next milestone of collecting 500 or more brain scans. In collaboration with co-investigators at Columbia Psychiatry, New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) and elsewhere, we will also continue to pursue funding to develop and apply My Brain and Me as a scalable approach to help speed up mental health research while democratizing access to the beauty and insight that cutting-edge neuroscience can provide.

To learn more and subscribe for updates check out https://mybrainandme.org.