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7 Key Lessons from the 2011 SharpBrains Summit: Retooling Brain Health for the 21st Century

Sharp­Brains served a high­ly thought-pro­vok­ing and infor­ma­tive 2011 Vir­tu­al Sum­mit on Retool­ing Brain Health for the 21st Cen­tu­ry over 3 days, March 30th — April 1st. Here is a brief dis­til­la­tion of the large num­ber (40+) of pre­sen­ta­tions.

1.The range and vari­ety of pre­sen­ta­tions left no room for doubt that the dig­i­tal brain health mar­ket is con­cerned with much more than improv­ing cog­ni­tive per­for­mance and preventing/treating dis­ease. There is a need for many tools in each of the fol­low­ing cat­e­gories: com­put­er­ized assess­ment for myr­i­ad cog­ni­tive, psy­cho­log­i­cal and neu­ro­log­i­cal con­cerns; data analy­sis and rec­om­men­da­tion sys­tems; inter­ven­tions for man­i­fold clin­i­cal and non-clin­i­cal prob­lems; mea­sure­ment of the effec­tive­ness of inter­ven­tions; dynam­ic feed­back and inter­ven­tion adjust­ment. Sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments were pre­sent­ed in each of those areas. More­over, there was an equal empha­sis on research and devel­op­ment for main­te­nance, pre­ven­tion, treat­ment and enhance­ment of brain func­tion across the lifes­pan.

2.A “one size fits all” approach is clear­ly not appro­pri­ate to all of the fore­go­ing con­cerns. For exam­ple, not all lifestyle guide­lines or brain train­ing pro­grams or drugs have the same effects. Some tools may enhance mech­a­nisms used by many cog­ni­tive skills. Oth­ers are tar­get­ed at mech­a­nisms involved in few­er types of tasks. Trans­fer is hard to obtain. Yet Dr. Bave­li­er pre­sent­ed impres­sive research sug­gest­ing that some action pro­grams enhance some users’ exec­u­tive con­trol and selec­tive atten­tion (with broad trans­fer) where­as soft­ware games that do not present com­pet­ing atten­tion­al tar­gets (e.g., Tetris) did not improve selec­tive atten­tion. Equal­ly impres­sive research by Dr. Jer­ri Edwards and Dr. Sophia Vino­gradov showed how tar­get­ed cog­ni­tive train­ing can sup­port dri­ving safe­ty and men­tal health. The gen­er­al­i­ty of these find­ings remain to be deter­mined (e.g., does the same train­ing improve one’s abil­i­ty to fil­ter out inter­nal moti­va­tors on more self-reg­u­lat­ed tasks?).

To guide con­sumers and front-line prac­ti­tion­ers, we need to pro­vide trans­par­ent infor­ma­tion about evi­dence-based pro­grams that tar­get mech­a­nisms under­ly­ing skills that mat­ter to them – and we need a clear assess­ment-based sys­tem to per­son­al­ize inter­ven­tions. Con­sumers need­ing to keep focused in dynam­ic envi­ron­ments would require dif­fer­ent soft­ware than if they need to keep more infor­ma­tion in work­ing mem­o­ry. Cus­tomers aim­ing to dri­ve more safe­ly should con­sid­er pro­grams specif­i­cal­ly designed and test­ed to improve dri­ving (some of them affect field of view and reac­tion times). There is no sil­ver bul­let that is use­ful for every­thing.

3.While there is no sil­ver bul­let, there are require­ments that apply to many train­ing con­cerns. Sev­er­al were voiced by Sum­mit speak­ers. For exam­ple,

  • being based on sci­en­tif­ic con­structs,
  • being inde­pen­dent­ly and rig­or­ous­ly test­ed,
  • dynam­i­cal­ly mon­i­tor­ing and ana­lyz­ing per­for­mance,
  • dynam­i­cal­ly adjust­ing treat­ments and chal­lenge lev­els based on the dynam­ic analy­ses, and
  • pro­vid­ing mean­ing­ful feed­back to users or clin­i­cians.

Such cri­te­ria apply to a wide range of pro­grams each tar­get­ed at dif­fer­ent con­cerns.

4.There was again broad recog­ni­tion amongst pre­sen­ters and par­tic­i­pants that a holis­tic, inte­gra­tive approach to brain health is required.

5.Given the com­plex­i­ty of the mind and brain and the tasks out­lined above, researchers and man­u­fac­tur­ers need to devel­op and adopt inno­v­a­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tive and eco­nom­i­cal research strate­gies. Indeed, we heard that some cog­ni­tive train­ing prod­uct devel­op­ers have already cre­at­ed research plat­forms to allow inde­pen­dent researchers to assess their soft­ware and ana­lyze (anonymized) data. Some of these devel­op­ers can serve up numer­ous data to sci­en­tists from each of thou­sands and even mil­lions of users. This will allow sci­en­tists to answer ques­tions that could not ade­quate­ly be addressed in the past. The ques­tions are not mere­ly about the valid­i­ty and effects of the com­mer­cial soft­ware: All kinds of men­tal mech­a­nisms can be explored with these new plat­forms. This also dis­trib­utes and low­ers the over­all cost of doing research.

Hav­ing led the devel­op­ment of a data-intense research plat­form in a cog­nate field (edu­ca­tion) with Dr. Phil Winne at SFU, I know that the new data pro­cess­ing require­ments will push the bound­aries of tra­di­tion­al sta­tis­ti­cal analy­ses in psy­chol­o­gy and neu­ro­science in excit­ing ways. It will lead to major inno­va­tions in the analy­sis of data, includ­ing the impor­ta­tion and devel­op­ment of tech­niques from com­put­er sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence.

6.Another impli­ca­tion of the com­plex­i­ty of this field is a need for inno­v­a­tive ways of fund­ing research, prod­uct devel­op­ment and mar­ket­ing of new prod­ucts.

  • Bay­crest described how over 50% of their fund­ing comes from pub­lic sources.
  • Dr. Wal­ter Green­leaf, of Vir­tu­al­ly Bet­ter, sug­gest­ed spe­cif­ic chal­lenges and strate­gies that star­tups should con­sid­er in bring­ing prod­ucts to mar­kets.
  • Some pre­sen­ters rec­og­nized that cog­ni­tive train­ing prod­ucts are cur­rent­ly too expen­sive for wide­spread adop­tion.
  • Dr. Hen­ry Mah­ncke, CEO of Posit Sci­ence, sug­gest­ed that con­sumers could rea­son­ably be paid to use these prod­ucts. For exam­ple, insur­ance com­pa­nies could pro­vide dis­counts to cus­tomers who train with soft­ware that demon­stra­bly low­ers acci­dent rates.
  • At last year’s Sum­mit, we heard that Young Dri­vers of Cana­da pro­vides licens­es of such soft­ware to their stu­dents. At this year’s Sum­mit we heard how All­state pro­vides pro­grams for free to their insured.
  • Some com­pa­nies, such as Nation­wide, now issue well­ness cred­its to employ­ees for using select online brain well­ness plat­forms. In oth­er words, the cost of new solu­tions and ser­vices can be split amongst dif­fer­ent enti­ties who have a finan­cial stake in the user’s men­tal capa­bil­i­ties and over­all brain health.

7.We are at an ear­ly stage of mar­ket devel­op­ment — with asso­ci­at­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges. Robin Klaus from Club One not­ed that it in the 1960s, it was strange to see peo­ple jog­ging. Not so by the late 70s. He pro­posed that peo­ple who are already active­ly inter­est­ed in their health will form the lead­ing edge of adop­tion of brain fit­ness tech­nol­o­gy. I believe that peo­ple whose liveli­hoods are pred­i­cat­ed on their cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, i.e., knowl­edge work­ers, will also be ear­ly adopters. We can expect the num­bers of users to increase as a func­tion of the avail­abil­i­ty of prod­ucts that meet cus­tomer needs and the market’s recog­ni­tion that those needs are sig­nif­i­cant.

And one bonus key les­son…

7+1. The Vir­tu­al Sum­mit was a true Sum­mit, the best of what a con­fer­ence can offer, not a one-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel. There was a large num­ber and range of for­mal pre­sen­ta­tions, and each one was fol­lowed by an inter­ac­tive ques­tion peri­od dur­ing which par­tic­i­pants could ask ques­tions (in a chat box) to which pre­sen­ters ver­bal­ly respond­ed. There were also two chat rooms opened for dis­cus­sion dur­ing sev­er­al breaks. And a LinkedIn group was cre­at­ed for fol­lowup dis­cus­sions. This allowed par­tic­i­pants to con­tin­u­al­ly raise very many ger­mane ques­tions and points, such as a request for shar­ing neg­a­tive results. I.e., we ought to expect inde­pen­dent researchers to pro­duce not only a steady stream of cor­rob­o­ra­tions; they will dis­cov­er failed con­jec­tures, lim­i­ta­tions, and opti­mal oper­at­ing para­me­ters. Being able to bring to the table (a vir­tu­al table, that is) hun­dreds of stake­hold­ers rep­re­sent­ing all sec­tors and over 10 coun­tries for 3 days is some­thing dif­fi­cult to imag­ine in the so-called “real” world. This con­tin­ued for­ward-look­ing and cross-sec­tor con­ver­sa­tion can help advance this area of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy.

Of course, many oth­er ideas were moot­ed, ques­tions raised and answered, and new human con­nec­tions forged in this ongo­ing dis­cus­sion about one of the most impor­tant con­tem­po­rary top­ics: how to mea­sure, devel­op and main­tain the health and per­for­mance of our most pre­cious asset, our human brains.

Dr. Luc P. Beau­doin is Adjunct Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion at Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­sity. He spe­cial­izes in the­o­ret­i­cal and applied cog­ni­tive sci­ence. He has been doing research and devel­op­ment on inte­grated learn­ing envi­ron­ments since 2001. He is also doing research and devel­op­ment in the areas of cog­ni­tive fit­ness and pro­duc­tiv­ity. He was a first-round employ­ee of two of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful high-tech star­tups. He has also been Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mil­i­tary Psy­chol­ogy and Lead­er­ship.

To learn more: 2011 Vir­tu­al Sum­mit on Retool­ing Brain Health for the 21st Cen­tu­ry

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