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Pumping up the Brain: Reflections on the SharpBrains Virtual Summit

On Jan­u­ary 18–20, 2010 Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and his team at Sharp­Brains put togeth­er a splen­did sharpbrains_summit_logoline-up of speak­ers on a wide range of top­ics relat­ed to emerg­ing brain fit­ness research, tech­nolo­gies, and mar­kets, and clin­i­cal cog­ni­tive and men­tal health issues. IFTF was proud to be a spon­sor of this event.

Although the con­fer­ence was vir­tu­al, aside from the rig­ors of trav­el and a bas­ket of bagels on the hall­way table, my lev­el of intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­la­tion (and fatigue) mir­rored most of my face-to-face con­fer­ence expe­ri­ences. It was a tech­ni­cal suc­cess and the con­tent was first-rate.

The con­fer­ence was a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for us at IFTF to gath­er data and map the research land­scape in cog­ni­tive fit­ness, espe­cial­ly as it relates to our 2010 Health Hori­zons research project around “Neu­ro­cen­tric Health.”

I’d like to share a small sam­ple of the obser­va­tions, shifts, and points of inter­est we took from the con­fer­ence.

1. The fore­cast of Dr. Michael Merzenich, an expert in brain plas­tic­i­ty, that clin­i­cal prac­tice and treat­ment will move from drug/­surgery-based inter­ven­tions to non-inva­sive tech­niques, prac­tices, and pre­ven­ta­tive coach­ing is pro­found. This would change the tim­ing, lev­el, and qual­i­ty of treat­ment inter­ven­tions, and could be a sig­nif­i­cant cat­a­lyst to the (arguably) need­ed change in medical/clinical point of care and cul­ture that Dr. P Murali Doraiswamy of Duke Uni­ver­si­ty men­tioned as well. This shift would impact the insur­ance indus­try and risk pro­files, pay­ment mech­a­nisms, and, most impor­tant­ly, might be bet­ter for patients as well.

2. I am always wary of reduc­tion­ist mod­els and the ten­den­cy to focus our atten­tion on cer­tain organs or meth­ods at the expense of the whole sys­tem. This hes­i­ta­tion is espe­cial­ly impor­tant when the focus is on the brain. I was very hap­py to hear most of the pre­sen­ters and researchers talk­ing about the brain in terms of an ecology–as inte­grat­ed with­in a mind/body/environment relay sys­tem. I think this is a very pos­i­tive sign for the direc­tion of the field of brain fit­ness, and hope­ful­ly for the brain sci­ences at large.

3. It is clear there is major shift occur­ing in the allo­ca­tion of resources (finan­cial, intel­lec­tu­al, infra­struc­tur­al) into brain and cog­ni­tive fit­ness. The tsuna­mi of aging boomers will make this space even more appeal­ing to researchers and investors. The clear sign that cog­ni­tive fit­ness works best when start­ed ear­ly also points to not just boomers, but peo­ple of all ages, as a poten­tial mar­ket and bene­fac­tor of these tech­niques.

4. The under­stand­ing and mit­i­ga­tion of risk is being trans­formed. Hav­ing more com­plete and pow­er­ful assess­ments of our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, and being able to track these over time in com­par­i­son to per­son­al past per­for­mance, as well as the larg­er pop­u­la­tion, will be a pow­er­ful tool for under­stand­ing and inter­ven­ing in cer­tain activ­i­ties (like dri­ving a car). The results Tom War­den shared on the reduc­tion of acci­dents from peo­ple who engaged in Allstate’s cog­ni­tive improve­ment pro­gram was telling of the pos­i­tive impact that train­ing can have on our every­day lives.

5. The dynam­ics between sci­en­tif­ic researchers and mar­ket entre­pre­neurs will be inter­est­ing to watch. Clear­ly, the field of legit­i­mate researchers in cog­ni­tive fit­ness does not want to go the way of neu­triceu­ti­cals, in which the mar­ket was flood­ed with exag­ger­at­ed claims, shod­dy prod­ucts, and huck­sters of all kinds. The need for rig­or­ous test­ing, reg­u­la­tion and stan­dards is clear. How­ev­er, one must be care­ful not to squeeze out inno­va­tion by walling off the field only to those who meet cer­tain cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. The desire for legit­i­ma­cy might be used as a weapon of con­trol and choke off poten­tial part­ners and inno­va­tors who may be able to bring the ben­e­fits of cogn­ti­ive train­ing to large num­bers of peo­ple.

We will be work­ing and think­ing about these issues and more, and thank Alvaro and Sharp­Brains for cre­at­ing a very use­ful plat­form to share infor­ma­tion and engage in this impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion.

jakedJake Duna­gan is a Research Direc­tor at the Insti­tute For The Future. His research exam­ines the role of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies in trans­form­ing sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, cul­ture, and gov­er­nance, and he has been lead­ing explo­rations into new meth­ods for com­mu­ni­cat­ing fore­sight. Jake is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing his Ph.D. at the Manoa School of Futures Stud­ies on neu­ropol­i­tics, neu­ropow­er, and alter­na­tive futures for the extend­ed mind. You can vis­it his blog Here.

  • Link to Sharp­Brains Sum­mit: Here.

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