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Invest in Brain Health to Drive Innovation and Prosperity

In an increas­ing­ly knowl­edge-based and inno­va­tion-dri­ven econ­o­my, human brains—not finan­cial capital—are becom­ing the pri­ma­ry dri­vers of busi­ness suc­cess. Engaged, cre­ative cit­i­zens and work­ers mean the dif­fer­ence between suc­cess and fail­ure at the orga­ni­za­tion­al and soci­etal lev­els.

Look­ing at the prob­lem from the per­spec­tive of brain health, there are sig­nif­i­cant issues play­ing out across a broad spec­trum: How does a per­son, an orga­ni­za­tion or even a coun­try achieve peak, opti­mal per­for­mance? How do we trans­late neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty find­ings into health­care and train­ing solu­tions? And how do we cope with injuries to the brain due to stress, aging or oth­er­wise?

The chal­lenge and oppor­tu­ni­ty is actu­al­ly stag­ger­ing, as dis­cussed in-depth dur­ing the 2012 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit: Opti­miz­ing Health through Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, Inno­va­tion and Data (June 7 — 14th, 2012).

For exam­ple, “brain and ner­vous sys­tem dis­or­ders account for more hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, long-term care and chron­ic suf­fer­ing than near­ly all oth­er ill­ness­es com­bined, result­ing in a glob­al eco­nom­ic bur­den of greater than $2 tril­lion per year.” (Source: “The Neu­rotech­nol­o­gy Indus­try 2011 Report,” Neu­roIn­sights.)

Accord­ing to a report by the Cana­di­an Men­tal Health Asso­ci­a­tion, each day an esti­mat­ed 500,000 Cana­di­ans miss work due to brain health issues. This absen­teeism is esti­mat­ed to account for 70% of all work­force dis­abil­i­ty costs. And the pic­ture is sim­i­lar in oth­er advanced economies such as the US and the UK.

Inno­va­tion eco­nom­ics, a dom­i­nant pol­i­cy for the 21st cen­tu­ry, shows con­vinc­ing­ly that the lion’s share of steady eco­nom­ic growth is deter­mined by pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and inno­va­tion. It is only through actions tak­en by work­ers, com­pa­nies, entre­pre­neurs and gov­ern­ments that an economy’s true pro­duc­tive and inno­v­a­tive pow­er is unleashed.

So how do we build brain cap­i­tal?

Enter “cog­ni­tive reserve,” a con­cept high­light­ed dur­ing the 2012 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit. Ideas around cog­ni­tive reserve arise from observed incon­sis­ten­cies between the extent of brain pathol­o­gy and the clin­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of brain changes. Two peo­ple may have the same degree of pathol­o­gy but exhib­it very dif­fer­ent man­i­fes­ta­tions of dis­ease.

Many epi­demi­o­log­i­cal stud­ies point to the pow­er of brain reserve: some peo­ple actu­al­ly cope bet­ter with brain dam­age. Why? Their brain net­works are more flex­i­ble, resilient and adapt­able. Net­work the­o­ry is a pow­er­ful tool for under­stand­ing the human brain in this way.

What can we do about it?

Fac­tors affect­ing cog­ni­tive reserve are large­ly envi­ron­men­tal and there­fore under our indi­vid­ual and soci­etal con­trol. We know that cer­tain life experiences—bilingualism, for example—can help build brain reserve, cre­ate more synaps­es and impart com­ple­men­tary anatom­ic changes to the brain.

As mature adults then, are we beyond expe­ri­enc­ing mean­ing­ful brain changes? Far from it.

Cog­ni­tive reserve is a mal­leable capac­i­ty. At the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit ses­sion “How will Health incor­po­rate Brain?”, Peter White­house pre­sent­ed a very hope­ful mes­sage: we can active­ly inter­vene for bet­ter brain health—both genet­ic and expe­ri­en­tial com­po­nents are at play. Edu­ca­tion, occu­pa­tion and chal­leng­ing leisure activities—almost any­thing that requires a per­son to per­form at their max­i­mum capacity—will all enhance cog­ni­tive reserve. Sharp­Brains has even pub­lished a book, hand­picked as a Best Book by AARP, and cre­at­ed an online course empow­er­ing con­sumers to become their own “brain fit­ness coach­es,” taught by inno­va­tor and edu­ca­tor Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and neu­ro­sci­en­tists Alvaro Pas­cual-Leone and Robert Bilder.

Build­ing per­son­al brain cap­i­tal is a con­tin­u­ous process, and each life stage event con­tributes to reserve in lat­er life. Just think of edu­ca­tion as a com­po­nent of health: it opens the door to big changes in how we view all kinds of activ­i­ties that pro­mote brain reserve.

One size does not fit all.

It is now evi­dent that spe­cif­ic pro­grams of activ­i­ty impact spe­cif­ic brain regions. These effects are vis­i­ble through brain imag­ing, and their qual­i­ta­tive ben­e­fits are mea­sur­able. How­ev­er, the effects appear to be lim­it­ed to tar­get­ed domains—play a game that improves your speed of pro­cess­ing and it will indeed improve, but it won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to improve­ments in oth­er cog­ni­tive capac­i­ties. Thus, com­put­er games can be very pre­cise and pow­er­ful tools used for acquir­ing spe­cif­ic skills or they can sim­ply train your brain to remem­ber lots of facts.

Nolan Bush­nell, the founder of Atari and the co-founder of Brain­rush and Anti-AgingGames.com, spoke at length at the 2012 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit about neu­ro-games as fast tracks to learn­ing and main­tain­ing brain plas­tic­i­ty through­out life at the ses­sion “What are con­sumer beliefs and behav­iors around brain train­ing today, and how will they evolve?”

All my friends and rel­a­tives know about my pas­sion for under­stand­ing the inner work­ings of the human brain. But what most of them real­ly like to hear about are spe­cif­ic recipes that they can fol­low to improve their health. After all, as con­sumers we don’t care about our indi­vid­ual organs, we sim­ply want to be healthy. Our brains learn and allow us to act in the world and to accom­plish things that are impor­tant to us as indi­vid­u­als.

In my work at Cog­nic­i­ti, a Cana­di­an com­pa­ny co-found­ed by Bay­crest and MaRS Dis­cov­ery Dis­trict, I’ve looked in depth at the inter­face of brain func­tion and health: How are per­son­al aggra­va­tions, caused by fail­ing mem­o­ry, described to fam­i­ly doc­tors? And what is typ­i­cal­ly done about them?

The cur­rent state of the brain-health inter­face is well cap­tured by this quote from one of our pilot cus­tomers: “As I look online through these forums—Google search­es as well as what my doc­tors tell me—I am sur­prised I have yet to see a firm answer.”

Mar­ket research find­ings sup­port this point:

  • 82% of the experts and pio­neers sur­veyed by Sharp­Brains say con­sumers should take charge of their own brain health
  • Three out of four of them see brain health as a jour­ney to max­i­mize per­son­al peak per­for­mance rather than a one-time, dis­ease-based, solu­tion

At Cog­nic­i­ti, our research and devel­op­ment efforts have been aimed at address­ing issues inher­ent to the con­sumer-health­care inter­face. After all, for­get­ful­ness is tran­sient by nature and atti­tudes of dis­missal and res­ig­na­tion still pre­vail.

How do we iden­ti­fy poten­tial prob­lems ear­ly?

How do we best design a self-admin­is­tered tool for the ear­ly iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of poten­tial prob­lems? How can we address the gap between emerg­ing sci­ence and con­sumer under­stand­ing?

Cog­nic­i­ti has been attack­ing the root prob­lem for con­sumers. There is still no quick, inex­pen­sive and reli­able tool that a per­son can use to indi­cate whether the cog­ni­tive changes they are expe­ri­enc­ing are nor­mal and age relat­ed or whether they are pos­si­bly indica­tive of health issues. We believe that ear­ly assessment—along with sci­ence-based edu­ca­tion and interventions—will play an ever more crit­i­cal role in brain health.

For indi­vid­u­als who are expe­ri­enc­ing nor­mal, age-relat­ed cog­ni­tive changes, know­ing that their cog­ni­tive per­for­mance falls with­in the range expect­ed for their age should help alle­vi­ate their anx­i­eties and reduce unnec­es­sary vis­its to health pro­fes­sion­als. For those who have health issues beyond what is expect­ed with nor­mal aging, com­bin­ing a time­ly vis­it to the doctor’s office with a means to clear­ly explain spe­cif­ic areas of cog­ni­tive dif­fi­cul­ty will help doc­tors decide whether or not fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion is war­rant­ed.

The idea of cog­ni­tive reserve implies that indi­vid­u­als can use a spe­cif­ic brain net­work more effi­cient­ly, employ dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive strate­gies and call upon alter­nate brain net­works to achieve bet­ter cog­ni­tive per­for­mance. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, to date, we’ve dis­cov­ered no sin­gle direct route to this desir­able end.

The ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion

The clos­est thing to a “brain train­ing” sil­ver bul­let is per­haps med­i­ta­tion. A grow­ing body of research indi­cates the cor­re­la­tion between med­i­ta­tion and neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. It seems that med­i­ta­tion trans­forms both the archi­tec­ture and func­tion­ing of our brains.

At the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit ses­sion “How will Health incor­po­rates Brain”,  Michael Pos­ner high­light­ed one recent study show­ing that after prac­tis­ing med­i­ta­tion for a min­i­mum of 11 hours over a one-month peri­od, increas­es in both nerve den­si­ty and myelin for­ma­tion were found to have occurred in the sub­jects’ brains. This work is part of a series of pub­lished papers show­ing that med­i­ta­tion caus­es sig­nif­i­cant, mea­sur­able changes in phys­i­cal con­nec­tiv­i­ty with­in the atten­tion­al net­work of the brain, that is, the net­work of the brain involved in self-reg­u­la­tion and con­trol.

Oth­er research has found that med­i­ta­tion improves changes in mood and the abil­i­ty to man­age stress.

There is no estab­lished tem­plate for opti­mal brain health. Lifestyle fac­tors and over­all health con­di­tions can include myr­i­ad obstruc­tions to brain fit­ness. And yet the sci­ence is clear: Brain health is at the very foun­da­tion of our greater health and pros­per­i­ty. We as indi­vid­u­als and as soci­eties fail to enhance it at our per­il. Events such as the 2012 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit are instru­men­tal to sur­vey emerg­ing appli­ca­tions of neu­ro­science to enhance brain health across the lifes­pan and build brain cap­i­tal.

Use it or lose it, they say. Invest in it and get more of it, we may add.

– Veroni­ka Litin­s­ki, COO of Cog­nic­i­ti and a Par­tic­i­pant at 2012 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit, pro­vides advi­so­ry ser­vices to entre­pre­neurs and high growth com­pa­nies, with a spe­cial focus on life sci­ences mar­kets, spe­cial­iz­ing in cor­po­rate finance and busi­ness devel­op­ment.

 

–> Learn More about the  2012 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit: Opti­miz­ing Health through Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, Inno­va­tion and Data (June 7 — 14th, 2012)

Source of image at top: Big­Stock­Pho­to.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

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