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, 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.

About SharpBrains

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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