Meeting Report: 2011 SharpBrains Summit

Info­graph­ic based on 2011 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit’s Meet­ing Report

Pub­lished in Feb­ru­ary 2012

Pre­pared by: Alvaro Fer­nan­dez1, Luc P. Beau­doin2, Muki Hansteen-Izo­ra3, Mar­garet E. Mor­ris4, Joshua R. Stein­er­man5, Peter J. White­house6

1 Sharp­Brains, Wash­ing­ton, DC 20008

Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty, Burn­a­by, British Columbia

Intel Labs, Intel Cor­po­ra­tion, Hills­boro, OR 97124

Intel Labs, Intel Cor­po­ra­tion, Hills­boro, OR 97124

ProG­evi­ty Neu­ro­science, Meri­on Sta­tion, PA 19066

Depart­ment of Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence, Case West­ern Reserve Uni­ver­si­ty, Cleve­land, Ohio 44106



The 2011 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit brought togeth­er more than 260 research, tech­nol­o­gy and indus­try inno­va­tors in 17 coun­tries for 3 days to dis­cuss the rapid­ly evolv­ing devel­op­ments in sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and pol­i­cy rel­e­vant to brain health across the lifes­pan.  A num­ber of impor­tant themes emerged from the talks and dis­cus­sions, includ­ing poten­tial approach­es to devel­op­ing a rich dig­i­tal toolk­it to mon­i­tor and main­tain cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health, the need for inno­v­a­tive cross-sec­tor part­ner­ships and the urgency of scal­ing up solu­tion to address grow­ing soci­etal needs.  Also dis­cussed were required sci­en­tif­ic frame­works, mar­ket­ing stan­dards, analy­sis of latent con­sumer demands, and meth­ods to dis­sem­i­nate and dis­cuss time­ly infor­ma­tion and analy­sis – such as vir­tu­al con­fer­ences to bring togeth­er mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers to enable cross-sec­tor col­lab­o­ra­tion and fos­ter inno­va­tion. Glob­al pri­or­i­ties such as opti­miz­ing cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health across the lifes­pan pro­vide a com­pelling rea­son to inno­vate about the process of inno­va­tion itself, pool­ing the efforts of hun­dreds of pio­neers across the tra­di­tion­al silos of geog­ra­phy, sec­tor and pro­fes­sion. Vir­tu­al con­fer­ences can enable  suc­cess­ful dis­trib­uted col­lab­o­ra­tion when they focus on appro­pri­ate use of the dig­i­tal medi­um, deliv­er a clear val­ue propo­si­tion to par­tic­i­pants and pri­or­i­tize ease of tech­ni­cal access.


The 2011 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit: Retool­ing Brain Health for the 21st Cen­tu­ry (March 30th — April 1st, 2011) brought to the (vir­tu­al) table  more than 260 research, tech­nol­o­gy and indus­try par­tic­i­pants for 3 days to dis­cuss the ways in which neu­ro­science, cog­ni­tive sci­ence and non-inva­sive tech­nolo­gies can poten­tial­ly be employed to improve cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al and behav­ioral func­tions and capa­bil­i­ties across the lifespan.

As Dr. Bren­da Dann-Messier, Assis­tant Sec­re­tary for Voca­tion­al and Adult Edu­ca­tion of the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­cat­ed, high­light­ed in her open­ing remarks, we need to sharp­en our ques­tions and to envi­sion spe­cif­ic ways in which we can col­lab­o­rate, inno­vate, and make sig­nif­i­cant progress in years to come, giv­en longer lives and a much faster-mov­ing and com­plex soci­ety and labor mar­ket today than only 100 years ago. How will we retool our schools, uni­ver­si­ties, com­mu­ni­ty col­leges, work­places, health sys­tems and retire­ment poli­cies to ensure they sup­port, rather than hin­der, cit­i­zens’ abil­i­ties to thrive in the 21st century?

Par­tic­i­pants in 17 coun­tries attend­ed this whol­ly online con­fer­ence in order to learn from and con­verse  with more than 40 sci­en­tists, exec­u­tives, entre­pre­neurs and pol­icy mak­ers (1). Top­ics encom­passed cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science and neu­ro­plas­tic­ity research, con­sumer, reg­u­la­tory and pol­icy trends, and new­ly avail­able tech­nol­o­gy-based plat­forms, prod­ucts and ser­vices. Sum­mit par­tic­i­pants rep­re­sent­ed the inno­va­tion spec­trum, from researchers to tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ers to users and their asso­ci­a­tions, bring­ing diverse per­spec­tives on how emerg­ing sci­ence and tools can best help devel­op and main­tain the crit­i­cal men­tal capac­i­ties to opti­mize qual­i­ty of life, work­place pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and delay disease.

Most of the 11 Sum­mit pan­el ses­sions fea­tured a cross-sec­tor and cross-geog­ra­phy ros­ter of speak­ers, allow­ing, as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive exam­ple, a con­ver­sa­tion between a Sil­i­con Val­ley researcher and tech­nol­o­gist, a UK psy­chi­a­trist and an Amer­i­can insur­ance exec­u­tive, mod­er­at­ed by a Cana­di­an life sci­ences investor.

Key themes relat­ing to pub­lic per­cep­tions, pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ties, assess­ment options and ways to put research into prac­tice sur­faced in the Sum­mit’s open­ing pan­el. Nigel Smith, Direc­tor of Strat­e­gy at AARP, framed the con­ver­sa­tion by shar­ing that 80% of the 38,000 adults over 50 sur­veyed in the 2010 AARP Mem­ber Opin­ion Sur­vey indi­cated “Stay­ing Men­tally Sharp” as their top ranked inter­est and con­cern—above oth­er impor­tant con­cerns such as Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare (2), which rais­es the need to define, mea­sure and pro­mote the con­cept of “stay­ing men­tal­ly sharp” through the ear­ly assess­ment and pre­ven­tion of brain-based prob­lems, the opti­miza­tion of cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing in dai­ly life (e.g., work­ing, social­iz­ing, dri­ving) across the full lifes­pan, and the main­te­nance of inde­pen­dent liv­ing among old­er adults. Prof. Cary Coop­er, Chair of the UK’s Acad­e­my of Social Sci­ences intro­duced the main find­ings from The Fore­sight Project for Men­tal Cap­i­tal and Well­be­ing, a colos­sal endeav­or mar­shalling hun­dreds of neu­ro­sci­en­tists under the aus­pices of the UK gov­ern­ment in 2009, which coined the term “Men­tal Cap­i­tal” as encom­pass­ing “the total­i­ty of a person’s cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al resources. It includes their cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty, how flex­i­ble and effi­cient they are at learn­ing, and their “emo­tion­al intel­li­gence”, such as their social skills and resilience in the face of stress” (3). Dr. Ken­neth Kosik, Direc­tor of the Neu­ro­science Research Insti­tute at UC San­ta Bar­bara, added that “we need to demed­ical­ize cog­ni­tion” if we are to find ways to apply cog­ni­tive and neu­ro­science find­ings to prac­ti­cal life­long solu­tions for an aging pop­u­la­tion— away from a dis­ease-based and often phar­ma­co­log­i­cal­ly dri­ven med­ical agenda.



One of the major mes­sages from the con­fer­ence was the need to devote suf­fi­cient atten­tion and resources to pre­ven­tive brain health strate­gies across the whole lifes­pan (4) and the need to bring to mar­ket a new gen­er­a­tion of reli­able and inex­pen­sive assess­ment and mon­i­tor­ing strate­gies of cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health – in order to tar­get and deliv­er those pre­ven­tive strate­gies in effi­cient ways. There was con­sen­sus that repeat­ed, fre­quent, assess­ment over time (i.e., mon­i­tor­ing) with the use of con­sumer-fac­ing tech­nolo­gies is prefer­able to a sin­gle assess­ment. Sev­er­al speak­ers iden­ti­fied intra-indi­vid­ual change as a pow­er­ful mark­er of risk, diag­no­sis, and response to inter­ven­tion.  That is, an idio­graph­ic approach, com­par­ing a person’s cur­rent per­for­mance to his or her pre­vi­ous mea­sures, could be more infor­ma­tive than com­par­ing that indi­vid­ual to norms derived from the pop­u­la­tion at large (e.g., inflec­tions can be detect­ed).  In the past, logis­ti­cal and tech­ni­cal con­sid­er­a­tions made repeat­ed assess­ment too bur­den­some or expen­sive; how­ev­er, new tech­nolo­gies enable one to unob­tru­sive­ly obtain repeat­ed mea­sures (whose reli­a­bil­i­ty can be assessed) with­in dig­i­tal games, cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams, oth­er soft­ware, or nat­u­ral­is­tic envi­ron­ments, and allow for sophis­ti­cat­ed sta­tis­ti­cal and com­pu­ta­tion­al tech­niques to be applied.

Dr. Mol­ly Wag­ster pre­sent­ed tasks from the NIH Tool­box for the Assess­ment of Neu­ro­log­i­cal and Behav­ioral Func­tion, to be released in Sep­tem­ber 2012, as a pos­si­ble “com­mon cur­ren­cy” which could be used in a range of clin­i­cal and research appli­ca­tions through­out the lifes­pan.  Cog­ni­tive domains cov­ered include exec­u­tive func­tion, episod­ic mem­o­ry, lan­guage, pro­cess­ing speed, atten­tion, and work­ing mem­o­ry.  Com­mer­cial bat­ter­ies fea­tur­ing tech­nol­o­gy-enabled cog­ni­tive tests in these domains were also pre­sent­ed by mul­ti­ple devel­op­ers.  Non-cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral mea­sures which could be sam­pled pas­sive­ly or unob­tru­sive­ly may also be use­ful mark­ers of changes in brain func­tion which cor­re­spond to or even pre­cede changes in cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.  Exam­ples include met­rics of motor per­for­mance (walk­ing, typ­ing) or every­day func­tion (med­ica­tion adher­ence). The matur­ing of ana­lyt­i­cal tools and pas­sive meth­ods for in vivo behav­ioral assess­ment may offer promise for uncov­er­ing clin­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant cor­re­la­tions between the activ­i­ties of dai­ly liv­ing and cog­ni­tive func­tion. Stan­dard­iz­ing out­comes for research, clin­i­cal and con­sumer-fac­ing appli­ca­tions in order to enable mean­ing­ful com­par­a­tive analy­sis was iden­ti­fied as a major  bar­ri­er to inno­va­tion and to adop­tion of emerg­ing interventions.

The view was expressed that the grow­ing range of tests, prod­ucts and ser­vices in the expand­ing mar­ket­place cre­ates a num­ber of new require­ments. All par­ties (con­sumers, orga­ni­za­tions, clin­i­cians, edu­ca­tional pro­fes­sion­als, etc.) need trans­par­ent, prac­ti­cal and evi­dence-based infor­ma­tion about the effec­tive­ness of these prod­ucts. Health sys­tems admin­is­tra­tors will need to decide how to inte­grate lifestyle and non-inva­sive inter­ven­tions to enhance cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al func­tion­ing. Exist­ing clin­i­cal and reg­u­la­to­ry infra­struc­ture for dis­tri­b­u­tion and reim­burse­ment of val­i­dat­ed clin­i­cal bio-med­ical inter­ven­tions will also need to be adapt­ed to these new class­es of pre­ven­tive and ther­a­peu­tic prod­ucts.  A num­ber of Sum­mit par­tic­i­pants expressed a need for coa­lesc­ing and train­ing a cohort of “brain fit­ness” pro­fes­sion­als equipped to edu­cate the pub­lic and to inte­grate non-inva­sive pro­grams in com­mu­ni­ty envi­ron­ments.  These work­ers could be drawn from sev­er­al dis­ci­plines (includ­ing psy­chol­o­gy, occu­pa­tion­al and speech ther­a­py, spe­cial edu­ca­tion and social ser­vices). Result­ing frame­works for train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion could con­tribute, it was sug­gest­ed, to pub­lic edu­ca­tion efforts dri­ven, for exam­ple, by a grow­ing inter­est in an “annu­al men­tal check-up” (5).

While the pri­ma­ry focus of the con­fer­ence was inno­va­tion for cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health giv­en extend­ed longevi­ty, there were mul­ti­ple pre­sen­ta­tions and dis­cus­sions about how research in dis­abling med­ical con­di­tions, rang­ing from schiz­o­phre­nia to stroke and brain injury, may lead to promis­ing behav­ioral health and ther­a­py appli­ca­tions for a wider array of peo­ple with impaired cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. New types of non-phar­ma­co­log­i­cal, neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty-dri­ven inter­ven­tions might aug­ment or even super­sede choice phar­ma­co­log­i­cal agents and pure­ly com­pen­sa­tion-dri­ven approach­es in reme­di­ating cog­ni­tive deficits asso­ci­at­ed with these con­di­tions. Engag­ing the wider health­care com­mu­nity and embed­ding these appli­ca­tions in stan­dard clin­i­cal set­tings will require part­ner­ships, exten­sive edu­ca­tion of clin­i­cians and val­i­da­tion from clin­i­cal effec­tive­ness bod­ies and policy-makers.



Here is a brief dis­til­la­tion of key themes and impli­ca­tions from the con­fer­ence’s 40+ pre­sen­ta­tions and discussions.

1. A life­long, holis­tic, inte­gra­tive approach to brain health is required. What­ever the nomen­cla­ture, brain health starts at birth and encoun­ters an array of chal­lenges over one’s life­time. Giv­en extend­ed longevi­ty trends, an evolv­ing approach that is sen­si­tive to indi­vid­ual, envi­ron­men­tal and life-cycle needs is required. That means tai­lored pro­grams of assess­ment, exer­cise and social­iza­tion to improve brain health. Eth­i­cal quan­daries around data col­lec­tion and use and ear­ly diag­no­sis of cog­ni­tive impair­ments will require fur­ther debate and pol­icy developments.

2. Inno­v­a­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tive and eco­nom­i­cal research strate­gies are need­ed in indus­try, gov­ern­ment and acad­e­mia. Once the assess­ment and mon­i­tor­ing strate­gies dis­cussed above are in place, data pro­cess­ing require­ments will push the bound­aries of tra­di­tional sta­tis­ti­cal analy­ses in psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science in sig­nif­i­cant ways. They may lead to major devel­op­ments in the gath­er­ing and analy­sis of data at the inter­sec­tion of com­puter sci­ence, psy­cho­met­rics, math­e­mat­ics and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. Plat­forms that organ­i­cal­ly gath­er large data pools are gain­ing trac­tion and attract­ing inter­est from research com­mu­nities. BRAIN­net data­base of brain, cog­ni­tive, genom­ic and clin­i­cal data, and’s vast data­base of con­sumer inter­ac­tions per­formed via its web and mobile plat­forms are allow­ing researchers to pose new mean­ing­ful ques­tions. Val­i­dated tools that mit­i­gate research dupli­ca­tion and help answer emerg­ing research ques­tions would enhance infor­ma­tion yield and reduce research costs.

3. New fund­ing mech­a­nisms are need­ed to sup­port research, prod­uct devel­op­ment and mar­ket­ing of research-based non-tra­di­tion­al prod­ucts and ser­vices. The cost of new solu­tions and ser­vices can be dis­trib­uted among dif­fer­ent par­ties who have a stake  in the user’s men­tal capa­bil­i­ties and over­all brain health. The spe­cif­ic points below high­light poten­tial finan­cial con­flicts relat­ed to adop­tion and devel­op­ment of new tools:

  • Some pre­sen­ters rec­og­nized that cred­i­ble cog­ni­tive train­ing prod­ucts are cur­rently too expen­sive for wide­spread adop­tion. Dr. Hen­ry Mah­ncke, CEO of Posit Sci­ence, sug­gested that con­sumers could rea­son­ably be paid to use these prod­ucts in spe­cif­ic con­texts. For exam­ple, insur­ance com­pa­nies could pro­vide dis­counts to cus­tomers who vol­un­tar­i­ly com­plete inter­ven­tions that demon­stra­bly low­er acci­dent rates. Tom War­den at All­state shared pos­i­tive inter­nal data on an ongo­ing major pilot test which sug­gests they may be fol­low­ing that route in the future.
  • A num­ber of com­pa­nies, such as Nation­wide, now issue well­ness cred­its to employ­ees for using select online brain well­ness platforms.
  • Bay­crest stat­ed that over 50% of their fund­ing for new cog­ni­tive tech­nolo­gies comes from pub­lic sources.
  • Dr. Wal­ter Green­leaf, of vir­tu­al real­i­ty-based cog­ni­tive ther­a­pies Vir­tu­ally Bet­ter, sug­gested spe­cific chal­lenges and strate­gies that star­tups should con­sider in bring­ing prod­ucts to new mar­kets, such as pur­su­ing con­tract-based work with major play­ers who already have defined dis­tri­b­u­tion channels.

It was not­ed that this indus­try is not the first or the last to need to find ways to spread the costs of research and development.

4. A flex­i­ble, cus­tomiz­able and per­son­al­ized approach is required to address emerg­ing chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties. For exam­ple, not all lifestyle guide­lines, talk ther­a­pies, med­i­ta­tion tech­niques, cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams or drugs have the same effects on all peo­ple. Speak­ers empha­sized that, as a gen­er­al rule, trans­fer to mea­sur­able real-life out­comes is hard to obtain. But it was report­ed to be pos­si­ble when basic “con­di­tions for trans­fer” are met, such as prop­er iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of deficit in tar­get pop­u­la­tion and suf­fi­cient train­ing “dose” (6;7). Sev­er­al speak­ers con­fessed to be “shocked” by the strength of the neg­a­tive claims made by the “BBC brain train­ing” Nature paper (8) in spite of the “home­o­path­ic dos­ing” of the inter­ven­tion. Dr. Bave­lier pre­sented research sug­gest­ing that some action pro­grams enhance many users’ exec­u­tive con­trol and selec­tive atten­tion (with broad trans­fer) where­as soft­ware games that do not present com­pet­ing atten­tional tar­gets did not. Dr. Jer­ri Edwards (of Uni­ver­si­ty of South Florida’s School of Aging Stud­ies) and Dr. Sophia Vino­gradov (of UCSF Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try ) showed how spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive train­ing can yield dri­ving safe­ty and men­tal health ben­e­fits. More research is required to pre­cise­ly char­ac­ter­ize the map­ping between char­ac­ter­is­tics of inter­ven­tions and class­es of sig­nif­i­cant real world out­comes, espe­cial­ly giv­en the pro­tec­tive role of phys­i­cal exer­cise, cog­ni­tive engage­ment, and cog­ni­tive train­ing (9;10). Fur­ther, an objec­tive and reli­able assess­ment-based sys­tem will be required to per­son­al­ize inter­ven­tions based on the user’s needs, includ­ing the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of med­ical co-mor­bidi­ties that can impair cog­ni­tive function.

5. A rich dig­i­tal toolk­it for cog­ni­tive, social and emo­tion­al health is called for. As the range and vari­ety of pre­sen­ta­tions illus­trat­ed, there are ongo­ing ini­tia­tives to devel­op and deploy tools in each of the fol­low­ing cat­e­gories: com­put­er­ized assess­ment for myr­iad cog­ni­tive, psy­cho­log­i­cal and neu­ro­log­i­cal con­cerns; data analy­sis and rec­om­men­da­tion sys­tems; inter­ven­tions for man­i­fold clin­i­cal and non-clin­i­cal prob­lems; mea­sure­ment of the effec­tive­ness of inter­ven­tions; and dynam­ic feed­back and inter­ven­tion adjust­ment. Increas­ingly, smart devices and envi­ron­ments will allow seam­less cap­ture  of cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health data, per­mit­ting lon­gi­tu­di­nal, in vivo assess­ment of brain func­tioning. Screen­ings 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 required to dri­ve appli­ca­tions in health­care settings.

6. Mod­els and best prac­tices for scale up are a must — and diverse options are at hand. Giv­en the scale of the chal­lenges ahead, inno­v­a­tion will need to include var­ied approach­es to reach con­sumers, patients and pro­fes­sion­als, whether through dig­i­tal plat­forms, teams of pro­fes­sion­als, or retail for­mu­las com­prised of enjoy­able prod­ucts and edu­ca­tional cus­tomer ser­vice. Who will train the train­ers to ensure stan­dard­ized inter­ven­tions across dif­fer­ent sites and pop­u­la­tions? With new web plat­forms, com­mu­nity screen­ing of “at risk” pop­u­la­tions can be inex­pen­sive on a per capi­ta basis. Repeat­ed intra-indi­vid­ual cog­ni­tive test­ing may be able to reveal indi­vid­ual changes in cog­ni­tive decline rather than tra­di­tional com­par­isons with pop­u­la­tion norms.

7. The field and mar­ket­place are in their infan­cy — with asso­ci­ated oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges. Robin Klaus from Club One not­ed that it in the 1960’s, it was strange to see peo­ple jog­ging. He pro­posed that peo­ple who are already active­ly inter­ested in their health will form the lead­ing edge of adop­tion of emerg­ing pro­grams for “brain fit­ness”. Oth­er speak­ers pro­posed that peo­ple whose liveli­hoods are pred­i­cated on their cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, i.e., knowl­edge work­ers, will also be ear­ly adopters. Dr. Martha Farah and Michael Valen­zuela, among oth­ers, empha­sized the need for eth­i­cal and mean­ing­ful frame­works to help inter­est­ed par­ties nego­ti­ate a grow­ing range of options for brain enhance­ment (11).

To help iden­ti­fy and address these con­cerns, the Sum­mit dis­cus­sion includ­ed top­ics such as sci­en­tif­ic frame­works, mar­ket­ing stan­dards, analy­sis of latent con­sumer demands, and new ways to dis­sem­i­nate and dis­cuss time­ly infor­ma­tion and analy­sis – such as vir­tu­al con­fer­ences to bring togeth­er mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers to enable cross-sec­tor col­lab­o­ra­tion and fos­ter inno­va­tion. Glob­al pri­or­i­ties such as opti­miz­ing cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health across the lifes­pan pro­vide a com­pelling rea­son to improve the process of inno­va­tion itself, devis­ing new ways to pool the efforts of hun­dreds of pio­neers across the tra­di­tion­al silos of geog­ra­phy, sec­tor and profession.



Vir­tu­al con­fer­ences as a method for con­ven­ing a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary cohort of 260 par­tic­i­pants from 17 coun­tries dis­trib­uted around the world emerged from our dia­logue as a top­ic wor­thy of reflec­tion and inves­ti­ga­tion. No sin­gle speak­er or par­tic­i­pant had to trav­el to par­take in the 2011 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit. This means: no air­ports, air­planes, secu­ri­ty, etc. Speak­ers gave their talks online, par­tic­i­pants asked their ques­tions online, and mod­er­a­tors guid­ed the con­ver­sa­tions online. Every­one had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to min­gle in a pri­vate online plat­form before the con­fer­ence, dur­ing the breaks, and after the con­fer­ence. In the chat rooms, a large num­ber of par­tic­i­pants expressed grat­i­tude that they could obtain the ben­e­fits of such a con­fer­ence from their homes or offices.

Tra­di­tion­al con­fer­ences are excel­lent as a medi­um for gath­er­ing groups of peo­ple around a top­ic or theme in which they share a col­lec­tive inter­est. Face to face dia­logue between peo­ple is the opti­mal way to con­nect, com­mu­ni­cate, and estab­lish mutu­al under­stand­ing. How­ev­er, there are lim­i­ta­tions to this for­mat. The pri­ma­ry draw­back of course is geog­ra­phy. Trav­el is expen­sive and bur­den­some. Coor­di­na­tion of a mul­ti­tude of pre­sen­ters and par­tic­i­pants across both time and space can be a logis­ti­cal night­mare. The time and expense of tra­di­tion­al con­fer­ences often pre­cludes or lim­its par­tic­i­pa­tion to geo­graph­i­cal­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly con­ve­nient audi­ences. It can be dif­fi­cult to encour­age par­tic­i­pants out­side of the pri­ma­ry audi­ence to over­come the trav­el bur­den required to attend. For events seek­ing to fos­ter mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion this can be a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge. We believe that, based on our expe­ri­ence dur­ing the 2011 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit, vir­tu­al con­fer­ences can play an impor­tant role in enrich­ing and enhanc­ing cross-sec­tor, glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion when they fol­low these guidelines:

1)      Iden­ti­fy an unserved need. While any top­ic can poten­tial­ly jus­ti­fy a vir­tu­al con­fer­ence, we sug­gest not com­pet­ing with exist­ing events but to select a nascent top­ic which is just start­ing to draw sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic atten­tion and where sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy are key com­po­nents of the solu­tion. Fields where rel­e­vant data, find­ings, tech­nolo­gies and mar­ket devel­op­ments evolve rapid­ly will prob­a­bly see the most ben­e­fit from attempt­ing to orga­nize vir­tu­al events.

2)      Build on indus­try prac­tices for glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion. In orga­ni­za­tions at the nexus of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, be they for-prof­it multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies or non-prof­it uni­ver­si­ties,  glob­al dis­trib­uted col­lab­o­ra­tion is already part of the cul­ture, and vir­tu­al inter­ac­tions are already an inte­gral part of doing busi­ness, from web-based train­ing to con­fer­ence calls to remote workers.

3)      Explain the for­mat to spon­sors, allies and par­tic­i­pants as a way to reduce “fric­tion” among stake­hold­ers who should meet more often. Vir­tu­al con­fer­ences can enable addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion shar­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions dur­ing the year, build­ing incre­men­tal con­ver­sa­tions and rela­tion­ships with  ease of join­ing and less “fric­tion” in terms of time and cost. Seam­less cross-sec­tor and glob­al inter­ac­tions can pro­vide a much more holis­tic diag­no­sis of oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges, includ­ing expo­sure to non-famil­iar data and per­spec­tives. The weak con­nec­tions across sec­tors and geo­gra­phies can turn into esteemed rela­tion­ships and part­ner­ships that oth­er­wise would have been established.

4)      Pri­or­i­tize tech­ni­cal sim­plic­i­ty and ease of access. A temp­ta­tion which is hard but impor­tant to resist, giv­en the con­stant influx of new vir­tu­al plat­forms,  is to deploy the lat­est and visu­al­ly rich­est tech­nolo­gies includ­ing for exam­ple real-time video livestream and 3D visu­al envi­ron­ments. We would sug­gest the selec­tion of appro­pri­ate tech­nol­o­gy in align­ment with the needs of the top­ic and par­tic­i­pants and pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of sim­plic­i­ty and ease of tech­ni­cal access. Com­plex fea­tures that may work well in con­trolled tests can eas­i­ly prove too com­plex for hun­dreds of par­tic­i­pants that have vary­ing degrees of tech­ni­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion.  High band­width, video-inten­sive sys­tems offer some advan­tages; but they can pose unnec­es­sary bar­ri­ers to entry and can dri­ve par­tic­i­pants away.

5)      Facil­i­tate an inclu­sive yet well-curat­ed exchange. Vir­tu­al meet­ing tech­nolo­gies can enable dozens of speak­ers and mod­er­a­tors and hun­dreds of par­tic­i­pants, each of them in their own loca­tion, to share up-to-date  infor­ma­tion with par­tic­i­pants. This enables a poten­tial­ly unlim­it­ed num­ber of pre­sen­ta­tions and dis­cus­sions, and a very diverse speak­er ros­ter. Speak­ers can­not count on a “cap­tive audi­ence” – any par­tic­i­pant who is not inter­est­ed in the ongo­ing pro­ceed­ings can sim­ply go back to his or her dai­ly work by open­ing oth­er com­put­er pro­grams or mak­ing a phone call. This might actu­al­ly improve the qual­i­ty of pre­sen­ta­tions and facil­i­tate in depth dia­logue and discussion

6)      Facil­i­tate local con­nec­tions: local hosts can facil­i­tate phys­i­cal and vir­tu­al local meet­ings. includ­ing co-locat­ed par­tic­i­pa­tion for those in the same orga­ni­za­tion or city. They can also facil­i­tate prepara­to­ry and fol­low up meetings.

7)      Fos­ter a sense of com­mu­ni­ty. Cre­at­ing con­fer­ence-spe­cif­ic groups in a pro­fes­sion­al social plat­form such as LinkedIn enables par­tic­i­pants to con­nect with each oth­er and to main­tain dis­cus­sions before, dur­ing and after the con­fer­ence, fos­ter­ing a sense of com­mu­ni­ty. Con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings can also be inte­grat­ed with social media  and with part­ner orga­ni­za­tions’ com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels to facil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tions among exist­ing par­tic­i­pants and to engage new ones.

While vir­tu­al con­fer­ences offer numer­ous ben­e­fits and advan­tages over tra­di­tion­al co-locat­ed con­fer­ences, there are also dis­ad­van­tages. Tra­di­tion­al con­fer­ences are an estab­lished method for con­ven­ing a group of stake­hold­ers around a giv­en theme, mar­ket, or dis­ci­pline. Face to face con­tact is an essen­tial com­po­nent of learn­ing, shar­ing and devel­op­ing rela­tion­ships. We con­sid­er vir­tu­al con­fer­ences as a sup­ple­men­tal and alter­na­tive for­mat that can enhance and sup­port the abil­i­ty of a diverse group of stake­hold­ers with a com­mon inter­est to con­vene and col­lab­o­rate in an effec­tive and effi­cient manner.

Giv­en grow­ing broad­band Inter­net access, inno­v­a­tive video-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms and rich­er vir­tu­al envi­ron­ments, we believe the role of vir­tu­al con­fer­ences can only increase over time. A key open ques­tion, both regard­ing the field of life­long brain health and the role of vir­tu­al con­fer­ences, is: How can inno­va­tion be best inte­grat­ed into exist­ing prac­tices to aug­ment the realm of what is pos­si­ble and practical?



The major mes­sage from the 2011 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit was the need to devote suf­fi­cient atten­tion and resources to pre­ven­tive and capac­i­ty-build­ing brain health strate­gies across the lifes­pan, and that a new gen­er­a­tion of reli­able and inex­pen­sive assess­ment and mon­i­tor­ing strate­gies of cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health are essen­tial and attain­able com­po­nents of such strate­gies.  Edu­ca­tion, health care, med­ical, insur­ance and neu­rotech­nol­o­gy mod­els will need to adapt to bet­ter serve soci­etal needs in this emerg­ing sce­nario. There is a need to reduce the tra­di­tion­al depen­dence on inva­sive drugs and devices dri­ven by dis­ease-based mod­els. Par­tic­i­pants expressed opti­mism, with which we agree, about the poten­tial of rig­or­ous new research and inno­va­tion and a result­ing mar­ket­place found­ed on con­cepts of cog­ni­tive reserve and neuroplasticity.

To meet grow­ing demands, the process of inno­va­tion process must be accel­er­at­ed. Vir­tu­al inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences great­ly facil­i­tate knowl­edge shar­ing and net­work­ing in a way that is respon­sive to tight trav­el bud­gets and the rapid advances in tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence.  Vir­tu­al events can help to crit­i­cal­ly eval­u­ate emerg­ing require­ments, research and prod­ucts. They can pro­mote the devel­op­ment of inter-per­son­al rela­tion­ships that are impor­tant for apply­ing and advanc­ing knowl­edge and tech­nolo­gies beyond tra­di­tion­al silos. The suc­cess of these con­fer­ences is pred­i­cat­ed on their orga­niz­ers under­stand­ing the par­tic­i­pants’ needs, espe­cial­ly that of tech­ni­cal simplicity.



The 2011 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit was sup­port­ed by Sum­mit Spon­sors Intel Cor­po­ra­tion, Lumos Labs, Arrow­smith Pro­gram, Posit Sci­ence, Cogmed, UCLA Cen­ter on Aging, Bay­crest, Brain Resource, and Cog­niFit, and by Sum­mit Part­ners The Alzheimer’s Research and Pre­ven­tion Foun­da­tion (ARPF), The Beren­son-Allen Cen­ter for Non­in­va­sive Brain Stim­u­la­tion (CNBS), The Brain Injury Asso­ci­a­tion of Cana­da, Brain World Mag­a­zine, Cen­ter for Brain Health at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Dal­las, The Cen­ter for Infor­ma­tion Tech­nol­o­gy Research in the Inter­est of Soci­ety (CITRIS), The Cen­ter for Tech­nol­o­gy and Aging, Glob­al Phar­ma Con­sul­tan­cy, The Inter­na­tion­al Coun­cil on Active Aging® (ICAA), MaRS Dis­cov­ery Dis­trict, Nation­al Health Char­i­ties Cana­da, The Neu­rolead­er­ship Insti­tute, OLLI @ Berke­ley, Smart­Sil­vers,, The Gaz­za­ley Lab @ UCSF, and The UNCG Geron­tol­ogy Research Network.

We also acknowl­edge Ashoka: Inno­va­tors for the Pub­lic, for phys­i­cal­ly host­ing the Sharp­Brains team dur­ing the Sum­mit in their Arling­ton, VA office, and the fol­low­ing indi­vid­u­als for com­ment­ing on pre­vi­ous iter­a­tions of this meet­ing report: Luc P. Beau­doin, PhD (Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty), Kather­ine Sul­li­van (Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter), Steve Zanon (ProAc­tive Ageing).


Dis­claimer and Com­pet­ing Interests

Claims above con­sti­tute the opin­ion of the Authors, and the Authors alone; they do not rep­re­sent the views and opin­ions of the Author’s employ­ers, super­vi­sors, nor do they rep­re­sent the view of orga­ni­za­tions, busi­ness­es or insti­tu­tions the Author is a part of. This man­u­script has not been direct­ly sub­si­dized and/or con­tract­ed by a pri­vate or com­mer­cial enter­prise. The authors declare that they have no com­pet­ing inter­ests oth­er than those not­ed in their affiliations.



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–> Check out our upcom­ing event: 2014 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit — Shap­ing the Prac­tice and the Future of Brain Fit­ness (Octo­ber 28–30, 2014)

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