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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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