The 2011 SharpBrains Summit gathered more than 260 research and industry leaders in 16 countries for 3 days to discuss the changing landscape. Held online, participants from all over the globe attended to hear more than 40 thought leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs and policy makers outline the evolving marketplace. Discussion moved from cognitive fitness to neuroplasticity, across regulatory and policy trends, and new product launches by new and established players What did we take home from the SharpBrains Summit? Was it novel consumer insights arising from a new retail landscape? What of policy initiatives from innovation clusters around the globe? Do you see a future populated by neuroscience toolkits, driven by the inexorable demographic changes set to occur in the coming decades? Or was it a look “under the hood” of technology platforms developed by category leaders that sharpened our insight? Here are 10 emerging themes:
1. The Need for Standardization of methodologies
A profusion of cognitive and emotional health tests, batteries and new technologies are crowding the research environment. The NIH toolbox for the assessment of a broad range of cognitive domains and their associated deficits, to be released in September 2012, can contribute to the standardization of assessment tools, providing guidance to the research and clinical communities. At the same time, the range of products in the wider marketplace demands a neuroplasticity clearing house that provides transparent information to consumers, organizations, clinicians and educational professionals regarding scientific validity and other components of value.
2. Mental Capital requires a lifelong holistic approach
Whatever the nomenclature, brain health starts at birth and encounters an array of challenges over the lifetime as outlined in Cary Cooper’s discussion of the UK government’s Mental Capital and Wellbeing report. As humans age, an evolving approach that blends individual needs, environmental integration and appropriate life-cycle interventions will be required with tailored programs of assessment, exercise and socialization to improve brain health. Ethical quandaries around data collection and early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment will require further debate and policy developments.
3. The inevitable convergence with emerging technologies and provision of cross platform solutions
Increasingly, smart devices and environments will allow seamless data capture of cognitive variables, permitting longitudinal, in vivo assessment of cognitive function. Cognitive screening will be conducted through smart phones and other novel embedded technologies in the home and ambient settings. Interoperability of applications with Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) will be the next step in building credibility in healthcare settings.
4. The era of “big data” will shape new applications and research fields
New platforms that leverage large data sets are gaining traction and pulling in early adopters from the research community. BRAINnet deep database of brain, cognitive, genomic and clinical data and Lumosity.com’ s vast database of consumer interactions harvested via its web platform are allowing researchers to pose new and meaningful questions from robust and flexible data assets. Validated tools that reduce research duplication and validate emerging research questions are set to enhance information yield and reduce research costs.
5. Consumer needs and wants are not what they seem
Staying sharp and short term memory are commonly cited needs, but what of other areas such as managing stress, improving mental arithmetic and concentration skills? Enjoyable, interactive products can act as the sugar coating for the underlying science, providing motivational impetus for engagement with cognitive enhancement. Educational customer service, lower price points and trialability are appealing for new consumers looking to take their first steps in this new market.
6. The leading platforms are adaptive and provoke performance challenge
Flexible platforms that learn from physical gym environments will adapt to end users baselines and ramp up cognitive performance according to individual capacity. This tailoring provides both a customized focus and a key motivational ingredient that will allow consumers to set their own targets.
7. Specific applications for defined populations will drive commercial success
The stories of casting the net too wide are many. Focusing on specific problems in well defined settings and target populations will enable solutions that address the spectrum of deficits. Strategies based on capturing large sections of the “boomer” generation are redundant as they fail to address the diverse needs both within individual market segments and across the life-cycle. Customized, niche applications will permit marketplace evolution in a graduated fashion, with customers building on their basic understanding and taking steps to mix and match programs which address their unique profiles.
8. Transfer effects and durability of effects are here to stay
Growing research demonstrates that structured mental exercise effects can generalize to adjacent cognitive domains and improve real-world functioning when appropriately directed. This flies in the face of last year’s Nature/BBC brain training experiment that leading neuroscientists and psychiatrists criticized as having methodological weaknesses in multiple areas such as dosage effects and inferring overgeneralized conclusions that undermined core principles of the scientific process. However, moving from the lab to in vivo settings will be challenging, particularly in older adults where medical co-morbidity can impair cognitive function independently of neurodegenerative processes, raising questions about intervening by web based technologies alone.
9. Scaling up has diverse options at hand
Innovative programs, products and services abound with varied approaches across sectors and geography, whether through digital platforms, replicable teams of professionals, or retail formulas that focus on fun products and educational customer service. Who will train the trainers to ensure standardization of effects across different sites and populations? Socialization a key part of the notion of brain fitness and needs to be integrated into scalable programs, product and service offerings. Community screening of “at risk” populations can be inexpensive with new web platforms; repeated intra-individual cognitive testing can reveal individual changes in cognitive decline rather than traditional comparisons with population norms.
10. Mental health and medical conditions are the next big hurdle
A significant pipeline of research in disabling medical conditions ranging from schizophrenia and brain injury is on track to emerge in the coming years. Early results are promising, suggesting these interventions could supersede pharmacological agents of choice and remediate specific cognitive deficits that define these conditions. Persuading the wider healthcare community and embedding these applications in standard clinical settings will require partnerships, extensive clinician education and validation from policy-makers and clinical effectiveness bodies.
But which insight will add most to a rich, enabling ecosystem that creates long term value for society? Collaboration is emerging in ways that were unthinkable only a few years ago. Researchers are opening up their data and methodologies to gain insights from one another. Commercial organizations are partnering via digital channels, content syndication and other areas of best practice. Social entrepreneurs and local practitioners are sharing motivational tips and educational resources in their efforts to build programs from the bottom up. Open innovation is driving a better marketplace for consumers. All these collaborative efforts are the seeds of successful innovation, and despite still being in the foothills, it would seem better to go hand in hand, than taking a lonely road.
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