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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


5 Facts You Need To Know To Understand, Navigate And Enjoy The Digital Brain Health Revolution

Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies around the globe, now includ­ing Elon Musk’s Neu­ralink and even Face­book,  are research­ing and devel­op­ing new ways to help brain own­ers be smarter, sharp­er, and health­i­er.

What explains this flur­ry of activ­i­ty? Where may it be head­ed?

To help you under­stand what’s going on, let me high­light five key facts that emerged from the recent Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit.


Fact 1. There are 7.5 billion human brains out there, and everyone needs help

Con­sid­er all unmet needs derived from the tra­di­tion­al phar­ma-exclu­sive approach to brain health.

Learn­ing and cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ties in chil­dren are grow­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly, from ADHD and OCD, to autism. The relat­ed emo­tion­al and eco­nom­ic bur­den is sub­stan­tial — yet, over 60–70% of those with treat­ment have poor out­comes, and many who need help don’t get any.

Glob­al­ly, around 350 mil­lion peo­ple suf­fer from depres­sion. Add to that sub­stance abuse, and we are talk­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple with­out prop­er care and very high relapse rates for the lucky ones get­ting help.

Con­cus­sions and brain impair­ments per­vade through mil­lions of vet­er­ans and high-con­tact sports prac­ti­tion­ers, yet diag­no­sis and treat­ments are elu­sive.

And let’s not for­get the per­fect­ly healthy.

What can we do to strength­en brain con­nec­tiv­i­ty at any age, enhanc­ing com­plex prob­lem-solv­ing, nov­el think­ing, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, agili­ty & flex­i­bil­i­ty and strate­gic lead­er­ship – con­sid­ered to be the top skills to suceed in the Fourth Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion as described by the World Eco­nom­ic Forum?

Addi­tion­al­ly, we all age one day at a time and (hope­ful­ly) will live longer and longer lives, so address­ing aging-relat­ed cog­ni­tive decline should be a top pri­or­i­ty, and one where repeat­ed phar­ma­co­log­i­cal-dri­ven attempts have proven to be a dis­ap­point­ment.

In short: for one rea­son or anoth­er, the fact is that 7.5 bil­lion human brains need access to bet­ter and cheap­er brain health and men­tal health solu­tions.

Fact 2. Lifelong neuroplasticity means all those brains can “sculpt” themselves

Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor of his own brain” — neu­ro­science pio­neer San­ti­a­go Ramón y Cajal

Inno­va­tion is enabled by the core fact—called neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty–that the human brain con­tin­u­al­ly changes itself through expe­ri­ence. Neuroplasticity–or brain plas­tic­i­ty– refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to rewire itself based on expe­ri­ence by gen­er­at­ing new neu­rons and by form­ing new con­nec­tions between neu­rons, among oth­er fac­tors. It was believed for a long time that, after a cer­tain age, the brain became “fixed.” Now we know that the brain nev­er stops chang­ing, and that’s why there’s so much inter­est and hope around ways to har­ness that neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty to lead bet­ter lives, to enhance our brains, to delay brain health decline.

What fol­lows from this fact is that we can strength­en spe­cif­ic cir­cuits of the brain (through edu­ca­tion, our jobs and lifestyles, and also through men­tal exer­cis­esmed­i­ta­tion and neu­rostim­u­la­tion), in order to learn faster, bet­ter and become more resilient.


Fact 3. Mobile, sensing, wearable technologies, coupled with AI, provide a new platform to harness that neuroplasticity for good

We are wit­ness­ing the com­ing of age of a very promis­ing per­va­sive neu­rotech toolk­it enabling new dig­i­tal brain health solu­tions.

For exam­ple:

  • Eas­i­er access to med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness prac­tices via apps, bio/ neu­ro­feed­back
  • Per­son­al­ized med­i­cine and increased adher­ence via gam­i­fi­ca­tion and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI)
  • Sen­so­ri­mo­tor and phys­i­o­log­i­cal improve­ments via Vir­tu­al and Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty
  • Non-inva­sive Cog­ni­tive enhance­ment through tar­get­ed inter­ven­tions adap­tive in real-time, enabling bet­ter learn­ing and con­sol­i­da­tion

At the Sum­mit we saw any pio­neers are work­ing on ways to “har­ness neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty for good” via cog­ni­tive assess­ments and ther­a­pies (Brain­HQ, Cog­niFit, Akili, Pear Ther­a­peu­tics, Myn­dY­ou, Click Ther­a­peu­tics, Cog­nic­i­ti, SBT Group) mind­ful­ness apps (Clar­i­tas Mind­sciences), EEG (Emo­tiv, Interaxon’s Muse) vir­tu­al real­i­ty (Mind­Maze), and more.

Mind­ful­ness is anoth­er area with grow­ing activ­ity. Clar­i­tas Mind­sciences, for one, is work­ing to bet­ter man­age addic­tions via mind­ful­ness train­ing — pre­lim­i­nary find­ings show that the brain is able to dis­as­so­ci­ate the con­nec­tion between crav­ing and addic­tive behav­ior.

Edu­ca­tion giant Pear­son has been buy­ing and licens­ing dig­i­tal assess­ments and cog­ni­tive ther­a­peu­tics inter­ven­tion tools, such as Cogmed and Reha­Com, while the Edu­ca­tion­al Test­ing Ser­vice (ETS), is using Big Data and machine learn­ing plat­forms such as IBM Wat­son to iden­ti­fy at-risk learn­ers and help with time­ly and tar­get­ed inter­ven­tions.

(Click here to Learn from 100+ Brain Experts, Watch 40+ Hours at the Lead­ing Edge)

Fact 4. Entrepreneurship and investments are fueling accelerated growth

With both pri­vate and pub­lic invest­ments back­ing inno­va­tion in the dig­i­tal brain health space, the future does look sharp­er, health­i­er and brighter.

Mer­ck Ven­tures–an ever­green $300m dig­i­tal health fund backed by Mer­ck—is seek­ing invest­ments in dig­i­tal and plat­form tech­nolo­gies that enable Assess­ment, Inter­ven­tion and Treat­ment, and has five invest­ments in neu­rol­o­gy-relat­ed com­pa­nies, includ­ing a siz­able one in Akili Inter­ac­tive Labs. Akil­i’s vision, as dis­cussed in the Sum­mit, is to have FDA-approved mon­i­tor­ing and treat­ment envi­ron­ments that cer­ti­fy the valid­i­ty of effi­ca­cy to address a vari­ety of men­tal health issues.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Pear Ther­a­peu­tics is devel­op­ing app-based mon­i­tor­ing and gam­i­fi­ca­tion to tack­le chal­lenges such as sub­stance abuse dis­or­der, PTSD, anx­i­ety, Insom­nia, trau­mat­ic injury, and ADHD, in part­ner­ship with var­i­ous labs and phar­ma com­pa­nies, with the inten­tion to reduce costs and ensure a high­er patient reten­tion. Pear is backed by Jazz Ven­tures and its prod­ucts are in the process of secur­ing reg­u­la­to­ry approval.

Anoth­er excit­ing start-up, Mind­Maze, raised US$100M in 2016. Mind­Maze is work­ing on using vir­tu­al real­i­ty (VR), aug­ment­ed real­i­ty (AR), com­put­er graph­ics, brain imag­ing & neu­ro­science to treat patients with patients with a vari­ety of brain injuries.

There is also grow­ing invest­ments from pub­lic sources, espe­cial­ly in the US and Cana­da.

The Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health (NIMH) runs the Small Busi­ness Inno­va­tion Research Pro­gram (SBIR) and Small Busi­ness Tech­nol­o­gy Trans­fer Research Pro­gram (STTR), help­ing start-ups com­mer­cial­ize research. Inter­est­ing­ly, the major­i­ty of fund­ing since 2005 has been aimed at sup­port­ing IT-relat­ed ini­tia­tives: out of the port­fo­lio of US$325m and 528 invest­ments, 46% are in IT, 20% in Drug devel­op­ment, 12% in Research Tools, 8% in Soft­ware for data analy­sis and shar­ing.

Up north, Bay­crest recent­ly secured five year fund­ing of $124m from the Gov­ern­ments of Cana­da and Ontario, indus­try and var­i­ous donors to build the new Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Aging & Brain Health Inno­va­tion (CC-ABHI), with a mis­sion to accel­er­ate, inno­vate and dri­ve adop­tion of proven brain health prod­ucts, such as web-based cog­ni­tive assess­ment Cog­nic­i­ti.

Fact 5. Professionals are stepping up to help educate consumers and patients

All this flur­ry of inno­va­tion has, unfor­tu­nate­ly, also led to much con­fu­sion and con­tro­ver­sy.

Pro­fes­sion­al guid­ance is going to be impor­tant. When you see all the apps for (a) mind­ful­ness, such as Head­spaceHap­pi­fy, (b) cog­ni­tive train­ing like Lumos­i­ty, Peak, Cog­niFit, © med­ical, FDA-grade treat­ments such as Akili Inter­ac­tive Labs, Pear Ther­a­peu­tics and (d) EEG wear­ables such as Muse and Emo­tiv, you may be think­ing, this is great, but how will con­sumers know what to use and what not to, and how and when?

For­tu­nate­ly, there’s grow­ing inter­est by front-line prac­ti­tion­ers who want to help har­ness the new toolk­it in appro­pri­ate ways. For exam­ple, the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Clin­i­cal Neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy (AACN) announced at the 2016 vir­tu­al Sum­mit a new Dis­rup­tive Tech­nol­o­gy Ini­tia­tive to accel­er­ate the devel­op­ment of “assess­ments and/or inter­ven­tion-pre­ven­tion-improve­ment of cog­ni­tive func­tions, acces­si­ble to the entire pop­u­la­tion.”

Many of the Coach­es and Psy­chol­o­gists of the Future–represented in the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit by the Insti­tute of Coach­ing, the Wat­son Cen­tre for Brain Health, among others–are expand­ing their prac­tices with lat­est brain & cog­ni­tion find­ings and neu­rotech­nolo­gies, and help­ing end-users nav­i­gate and inte­grate the grow­ing range of options — For exam­ple, the frame­work below, com­ing from the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness, shows how to inte­grate and pri­or­i­tize the mul­ti­ple pieces in the brain health puz­zle, using tech­nol­o­gy to aug­ment (not to replace) our lifestyles.

The future is already here — it’s just not very even­ly dis­trib­uted” — essay­ist William Gib­son.

Well, let’s take on that dis­tri­b­u­tion chal­lenge and help appro­pri­ate­ly spread the knowl­edge and the tools 🙂


Alvaro Fer­nan­dez, proud pro­duc­er of the annu­al Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit, is a mem­ber of the World Eco­nom­ic Forum’s Coun­cil on the Future of Human Enhance­ment and a Judge of the Glob­al Teacher Prize.

Addi­tion­al resources:

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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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