Lessons from the SharpBrains Summit: Status Quo Not an Option

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 to con­clude, Col­lab­o­ra­tion is King

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.

To Learn More about the 2011 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit, you can visit:


  1. David on May 5, 2011 at 8:39

    Ai, dis­cov­ered this sum­mit too late, it sounds like it was amaz­ing though!

    Any pos­si­bil­i­ties to find parts or recaps of the sum­mit online?

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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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