Council Monthly Insights: How will we assess, enhance and repair cognition across the lifespan?

When you think of how the PC has altered the fab­ric of soci­ety, per­mit­ting instant access to infor­ma­tion and automat­ing process­es beyond our wildest dreams, it is instruc­tive to con­sid­er that much of this progress was dri­ven by Moore’s law. Halv­ing the size of semi­con­duc­tor every 18 months catal­ysed an expo­nen­tial accel­er­a­tion in performance.

Why is this sto­ry rel­e­vant to mod­ern neu­ro­science and the work­ings of the brain? Because trans­for­ma­tive tech­no­log­i­cal progress aris­es out of choice and the actions of indi­vid­u­als who see poten­tial for change, and we may well be on the verge of such progress.

Unlike oth­er sys­tems of the human body, the func­tion­ing of the brain is part-owned and co-opt­ed by a bewil­der­ing range of pro­fes­sion­als, thinkers and doers from neu­ro­sci­en­tists to philoso­phers, psy­chol­o­gists to edu­ca­tors, psy­chi­a­trists to neu­roanatomists, life coach­es to cor­po­rate train­ers. This frag­men­ta­tion of research and belief sys­tems hin­ders inno­va­tion, but pro­vides an untapped oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn from each oth­er, lever­ag­ing social media plat­forms and ubiq­ui­tous com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels that enable pro­fes­sion­als scat­tered far and wide to col­lab­o­rate and make con­nec­tions with pre­vi­ous­ly walled off part­ners, men­tors and peers, as evi­denced by the 2010 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit that gath­ered over 250 pro­fes­sion­als in 16 coun­tries, with­out a sin­gle one of them need­ing to board a plane.

Sig­nals abound that cog­ni­tive & affec­tive neu­ro­science and neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy are com­ing of age, some­times in coun­ter­in­tu­itive ways. The UK gov­ern­ment pro­duced a mas­sive report iden­ti­fy­ing the need to build Men­tal Cap­i­tal across the lifes­pan. The Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences helped pri­or­i­tize brain-based appli­ca­tions for the selec­tion, train­ing and deploy­ment of armed ser­vices per­son­nel. Sports con­cus­sions and PTSD are final­ly get­ting the atten­tion they deserve. A Nation­al Insti­tute of Health evi­dence review iden­ti­fied cog­ni­tive train­ing as a clear­ly pro­tec­tive fac­tor against cog­ni­tive decline, ahead even of phys­i­cal exer­cise and gen­er­al cog­ni­tive engage­ment. Pear­son, a major pub­lish­er, acquired Cogmed, a Swedish start-up that pio­neered evi­dence-based work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing. 40 orga­ni­za­tions sub­mit­ted entries to the 2010 Brain Fit­ness Inno­va­tion Awards, which were sur­pris­ing­ly won by USA Hockey.

Why do all these land­marks mat­ter? Because they are sym­bol­ic of inno­v­a­tive minds bet­ting on their vision for the future and choos­ing to align their objec­tives with the shift­ing sands of demo­graph­ic and soci­etal change, emerg­ing neu­ro­science and tech­no­log­i­cal possibility.

At the same time, aggres­sive mar­ket­ing and super­fi­cial media report­ing can taint opti­mism and under­mine progress. Some prod­ucts promise to dou­ble brain­pow­er fol­low­ing 3 easy steps. Ear­li­er this year, the BBC and Nature col­lab­o­rat­ed on the “largest brain train­ing exper­i­ment”, but what the study pro­vid­ed in num­bers, it under­per­formed in method­ol­o­gy and inter­pre­ta­tion. The neg­a­tive find­ings in one sin­gle and poor data point were report­ed wide­ly as if to close the door on a class of tech­nol­o­gy. It was hard not to sense a dis­taste for the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of sci­ence at its core, rather than the appre­ci­a­tion of what could be achieved if seri­ous col­lab­o­ra­tion, invest­ment and pub­lic edu­ca­tion were undertaken.

This ten­sion is per­haps an ample demon­stra­tion of the immense poten­tial and Achilles’ heel of com­put­er-aid­ed, non-inva­sive, neu­ro­science appli­ca­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that claim to delay, pre­vent, treat or mod­i­fy a par­tic­u­lar con­di­tion, men­tal state, or behav­ior. The eco­nom­ics of wide­ly adopt­ed dig­i­tal tools are high­ly attrac­tive. Costs of dis­tri­b­u­tion tend to zero, set­up costs are rel­a­tive­ly low, reg­u­la­to­ry bur­den is cur­rent­ly light, and the prod­ucts and ser­vices become increas­ing­ly valu­able as end-users feed­back rich data into the under­ly­ing mod­el, enabling seri­ous ana­lyt­ics at the pop­u­la­tion and indi­vid­ual lev­el. The result is that bar­ri­ers to entry are low for new play­ers, thus lead­ing to a pro­fu­sion of new appli­ca­tions and prod­uct claims.

What does this mean for this new indus­try and the con­sumers they serve? Any nascent indus­try needs an infra­struc­ture build out that incor­po­rates stan­dards, qual­i­ty con­trol, and a reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work, but exces­sive up-front reg­u­la­tion may sti­fle inno­va­tion in a cat­e­go­ry that seems to pose no neg­a­tive side effects oth­er than in the pock­ets of mis­in­formed buy­ers. The right bal­ance remains to be seen.

In schools, sports clubs, HR depart­ments, seniors providers, health sys­tems, insur­ers, and retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties, pio­neers are scour­ing the lat­est research and inno­va­tions, attempt­ing to dis­en­tan­gle the sig­nal from the noise, devis­ing their own pro­grams and test­ing new ideas to bet­ter serve their par­tic­u­lar con­stituents. This ground up brain fit­ness rev­o­lu­tion is tes­ta­ment to the notion that no inter­ven­tion or tech­nol­o­gy meets a one size fits all approach, that the time for “mag­ic pills” to cure every­thing and for all is behind us, and that tar­get­ed pop­u­la­tions require tar­get­ed approach­es to brain fit­ness and cog­ni­tive health — hence the need for new tools to assess and mon­i­tor cognitive/ emo­tion­al func­tion­ing and brain fit­ness, not just to enhance it.

How can we shape the future of this crit­i­cal field? By over­com­ing iner­tia and sta­tus quo bias. By mak­ing informed deci­sions as con­sumers. By proac­tive­ly learn­ing what meets the needs of our communities/ clients/ partners/ patients/ employ­ees. By shar­ing via the Sharp­Brains Coun­cil for Brain Fit­ness Inno­va­tion what our orga­ni­za­tions are doing or want to do. In 837 words… by innovating.

Ongoing SharpBrains Council Discussions

(Members-only links below. To Learn More and Join Council, click Here)

Now let’s take a look at the great things going on with the Sharp­Brains Council.

Coun­cil Membership
60 Coun­cil Mem­bers are already active in the Coun­cil mem­bers-only plat­form, bring­ing an excel­lent cross-sec­tor par­tic­i­pa­tion and fea­tur­ing inno­v­a­tive research, prod­ucts, ser­vices and prac­tices. The Mem­ber List avail­able in the Library sec­tion includes inter­ests and 2011 pri­or­i­ties, to facil­i­tate con­nec­tions. We are featuring:

  • 7 most active Coun­cil Mem­bers: Philip Toman, Jamie Wil­son, Luc Beau­doin, Joshua Stein­er­man, Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Adam Gaz­za­ley and Sher­rie All.
  • 7 Coun­cil Mem­bers doing great work out­side the US: Peter Rein­er, Veroni­ka Litin­s­ki and David Tal in Cana­da; Jen­ny Brock­is and Steve Zanon in Aus­tralia; Shlo­mo Breznitz and Lar­ry Shertz in Israel.



Research & Policy 

Com­ments of the month


To Learn More about the SharpBrains Council for Brain Fitness Innovation and Join Council: click Here

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