An AgeTech Collaborative™ startup participant, Sana Health offers a groundbreaking mask-and-headphones device that can reduce chronic pain, accelerate physical recovery and improve mental well-being, all by using innovative audiovisual technology to simulate the effects of long-term meditative practices.
Recently, Sana Health’s CEO and founder, Richard Hanbury, spent some time describing the company’s mission and how it’s disrupting the pain-management space.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Please tell us about Sana Health.
We make a mask that’s an audiovisual neuromodulation device; when you put it on, you receive pulses of light and sound that are specifically engineered to produce very particular frequency patterns in the brain, which then have therapeutic benefits for pain management and mental health.
Why did you found the company?
Years ago, I had a split-second decision whether to have a head-on collision with a petrol truck on a bridge in Yemen, or to go off the bridge. I went over the bridge, which resulted in a spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, nerve damage, and pain problems from the nerve damage. The pain was so severe that the hospital gave me a five-year life expectancy: Once you’re over a certain level of pain, you stay in fight-or-flight mode constantly, so you get no recovery. This is the major reason why chronic pain lowers life expectancy.
The hospital gave me meditation as a therapy to manage the pain. But when you’re already in severe chronic pain, meditation is impossible because, as a novice, the first thing you’re trying to do is increase your present-moment awareness. And when your present moment is hell, it’s an extremely bad idea to have more present-moment awareness.
But I had another experience in the hospital. I watched a movie, and when it was over, I realized there was a big difference in my pain levels depending on how engaged I was with the film at any given time. That made me realize that if I already knew how to get into these different meditative states, it would be super useful for managing pain. So I set out to create a way of getting into those states that give you pain relief, using an external stimulus.
How does the science work?
The pulsing light and pulsing sound are specifically engineered to mimic the patterns in the brain that are produced in long-term meditators when they’re meditating. The device doesn’t give you all the wisdom benefits you get from meditating, but it does give you all the “hardware” benefits of enabling your brain to get into specific states that lower pain.
Is the device meant strictly for pain management?
Really, it provides anxiety relief on demand, so it has applications across every type of pain, as well as across any type of mental health issue where anxiety is a component.
It also works with neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, by allowing people to sleep better. Lack of slow-wave sleep is a known factor for exacerbating how quickly Alzheimer's progresses. So our device will have applications for everything from acute post-surgical pain, to chronic pain, as well as anxiety, depression and neurodegenerative disorders.
Currently, we’re in front of the FDA for our first indication, which is fibromyalgia. We’re also collecting clinical data on neuropathic pain. Our third indication will be PTSD, which is being funded by the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
How do you plan to distribute the device?
We have “breakthrough device” designation from the FDA, which means that we’ve been identified as having a solution for a problem that’s life-threatening or life-debilitating, where there aren’t other good treatments available. Having that designation gives us a streamlined process through the FDA, as well as a streamlined process for the device to be paid for so people who need it can get it more quickly than is traditionally the case with new devices.
Once we have FDA approval, we expect to be fully reimbursed under government legislation that is due to be announced soon and come into force later this year. So someone could go to their doctor or pain specialist and say, “Can I try this device?” And reimbursement would occur through Medicare and Medicaid. We plan to add private payers in the future.
Clearly, your mask could bring relief to people of any age. Does it have any special benefits for people who are 50-plus?
Our first indication is fibromyalgia, because it’s a lifelong disorder — and the older you are, the more likely you are to have it. And if you have it, whatever other pain you get is amplified by your central nervous system. So our fibromyalgia indication is an especially important thing for older adults.
What’s on the horizon for Sana Health?
We want to move forward with pilots in fibromyalgia and neuropathic pain as soon as we have FDA approvals, so we’re looking for partners who do inpatient elder care and must contend with the sundowning effects of Alzheimer’s. Running a pilot with us to test how we can improve sleep with that population would validate an important tool in the toolkit for ongoing elder care.
We’re also looking for partners who work with a population that would benefit from anxiety reduction. Based on the clinical results we have so far, we know that our device can reduce anxiety by 20%, which would have a significant impact on costs. So we’re looking for partners where we can reduce costs to the system and improve outcomes for the individual.
Visit Sana Health’s website to learn more.