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

Posted Nov 18 2010 12:05pm

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

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.

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