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Transcript: Online Q&A on the Future of Brain Health with Alvaro Fernandez

Posted Mar 16 2012 11:49am

Below you can find the full tran­script of our engag­ing Q&A ses­sion today, Friday March 16th, on brain sustainability, retooling brain health, and applied neuroplasticity, with Alvaro Fernandez, SharpBrains’ Co-Founder who’s just been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum . You can learn more about the topic by reading this 2011 SharpBrains Summit Meeting Report and this Infographic .

10:04
Great, we are ready to start! 

10:04
Comment From Carol
First, congrats on the WEF recognition! What is it, exactly?

10:06
Thank you Carol and everyone! The World Economic Forum does many things other than organizing the annual big event at Davos. A great program they have is the Forum of Young Global Leaders, where they select around 200 people under 40 from around the world to help identify and solve big problems.

10:07
It was an honor to be selected, and it will be a great community and platform to drive change — it is a 5-year program-, hopefully helping bring more attention and resources to Brain, Brain Health, Brain Fitness.

10:07
Comment From Peter Whitehouse
Congratulations Alvaro. So how does the future of brain health interface with the concerning trends in environmental health associated with global climate change?

10:08
It is great news to see so many people focused now on sustainability. I would love to see the same energy behind Brain Sustainability — the brain is our most precious natural asset, and often overlooked.

10:08
Comment From Denis Socarrás-E. (UAH)
I would like to know how new knowledge on the brain will help us instructors develop curricula/training for our university students, such as language interpreters.

10:10
It is going to be a revolution, but of course it won’t happen in 2 weeks. The way we conceive of Education and Training will change from content/ info transfer to Development of Brain-based Capacities. How exactly? well, we need to engage innovators from many domains in internalizing and applying emerging science and tools, that’s what we want to encourage via our blog, virtual summit, book…

10:10
Comment From Para
Can we consider Brain Health in isolation?

10:12
No, we can’t. But it is one key bottleneck/ step that is often forgotten. It is a core piece of many puzzles, from education to mental health to productivity at work.

10:12
Comment From Carol
What is the main message from last year’s sharpbrains summit that you’d like to highlight?

10:13
Two core messages (and Peter W is one of the co-authors). One, we need to focus on building brain capacity across whole lifespan. Two, we need better, inexpensive, accessible assessments of brain function to better drive prevention and intervention, and good news is that it won’t take long for those to be available.

10:14
Comment From Jim Muckle
If there an effective way, from your perspective, for people who are speaking, training, leading, teaching, facilitating, coaching, (etc) with the brain in mind to be in touch with each other? I know there are many LinkedIn groups and other networks. But is there one, or a short list, that stand(s) out in your mind? Thank you.

10:15
Well, I am biased by our own efforts, but I believe sharpbrains.com is a great place to start, take a look at eNewsletter/ blog/ LinkedIn group and, above all, upcoming virtual summit in June.

10:15
Comment From Keith
Given what we know about the brain now, what would be your ideal scenario — say, the top 4 tangible things that people/companies/institutions can do or services they can provide that would make the biggest difference in brain health? And which providers, if any, are closest to where we need to be — and why?

10:18
Big question, need to provide concise answers here…I’d say, first, we’d have a clear baseline of brain function of everyone, so everyone can be more proactive about what they do and measure impact. Second, I’d spend a lot of time in educational curricula on how our brains work and how to manage them properly. Third, I’d tweak existing wellness programs so they truly incorporate brain-based knowledge. Fourth, I’d integrate brain training tools, from cognitive training to biofeedback to meditation.

10:18
Comment From Para
What about Brain illhealth.

10:20
Great question. Thomas Insel at NIMH is driving precisely that, how can we leverage neuroscience to inform mental health diagnosis and treatment. Please follow what is happening with schizophrenia, can be a good model for other disorders to follow.

10:20
Comment From Peter Whitehouse
The whole concept of disease is changing

10:21
Indeed. I think a core framework to keep in mind is to move from disease-based thinking to capacity-based thinking and tools. The higher the capacity, the more we can enhance wellness and health and delay problems/ diseases.

10:21
Comment From Keith
Going back to that big question…which brain training tools have the biggest effect?

10:23
Effect on what, precisely? Brain training is showing great promise when appropriately used, it is a targeted intervention not a general solution/ magic pill. When we reviewed multiple types of brain training techniques as part of work for The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness, we identified four most promising: meditation, biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive training (especially, but not only, working memory training)

10:23
Comment From Colleen C.
Can we put politics and religion aside as we confirm the best practices for brain health? (Western/Eastern practices and the multitude of religious/political ideals)

10:25
Yes, of course, biology knows no frontiers…what we are talking about is more fundamental than politics/ religion…it is about what being human means, what assets, potential, capabilities we all have, simply for having a human brain, how to enhance and maintain it.

10:26
A big obstacle is that people have a billion myths about the brain inside their minds…and it is going to take a while to replace those myths with more solid foundations.

10:26
Comment From Nigel Smith
Are there any examples of communities or countries that have taken the lead in systemically promoting practices or providing the right infrastructure to support cognitive fitness/ good neuroplasticity?

10:27
Just starting to happen, but at the policy level we see countries like UK, Canada and Singapore paying real attention to what the opportunity means and how to best leverage it. No country has yet implemented anything significant/ systematic.

10:29
I believe the process will be similar to what happened with physical exercise. First, controversy and pioneers taking the lead. Then, little by little, clear rules of the road, better evidence and tools, and large public campaigns. But this time will happen faster, given importance of problem, demands from consumers, and the connected society we live in.

10:30
Comment From Jim Muckle
Another option to make a difference would be for decision-makers at all levels to begin to ask the question, whenever resources are being allocated (e.g. via business planning, budget planning, project planning, and so on), “How will this resource/allocation/project (etc) encourage living, learning and working with the brain in mind?”

10:31
Great point. Much of the opportunity is not so much about doing radically new things, but about refining what we already are doing, and not doing anymore the things that make no sense. As you suggest, incorporating brain fitness considerations into general decision-making.

10:33
And let me make a point. We often miss clear opportunities to improve reality because we evaluate innovation and status quo with double standards. We expect perfection in order to incorporate innovation, which might make sense if status quo was evidence-based, but in much of brain health the reality is that status quo doesn’t make sense and is not evidence-based to start with, so innovation should’t be judged on whether it reflects perfection.

10:33
Comment From Peter Whitehouse
I think one key is truly integrating with K-12 systems of education. But IT in schools has had a mixed track record so far.

10:36
Yes, because there is a big divide between tech folks and science folks. Innovation requires true shared understanding and collaboration, what we want to build through our virtual summit and everything else we do. Much of what has been/ is happening in K12 doesn’t make much sense, either, it still reflects an old-fashioned content-transfer pre-neuroplasticity framework.

10:36
Comment From Teri
We also need to educate parents of young children so they can help their children develop good brain health i.e. diet exercise, cognitive challenge and stress reduction.

10:37
Indeed! From a personal point of view, a key priority for my wife and I, that has even determined where we live, is to make sure our daughter becomes truly bilingual if not trilingual.

10:38
Teri, you raise a great point about stress reduction. Everyone living in today’s society needs help to learn how to master stress and emotions, and we are all reinventing the wheel when we could be much more systematic and data-driven about this.

10:38
Comment From Keith
Regarding which training tools have the biggest effect…what has the biggest effect on longer-term brain health — not, for instance, the ability to improve at particular skills or puzzles but to have measurable changes in blood flow and health involving, say, the frontal lobe? The myths you reference are many — drawing from the research, what are the most high-impact things a person can do?

10:41
The key is to think about “active ingredients” before we think about “tools”. The active ingredients for good mental exercise are: novelty, variety, and increasing level of challenge, and you can get those in many ways. Now, what technology helps is to pinpoint/ personalize/ deliver targeted stimuli in efficient ways. But again, the key is, can I engineer my life and lifestyle to make sure it constantly incorporates novelty, variety and challenge? That’s what matters, not 10 puzzles or games.

10:41
Comment From Nigel Smith
Building on Teri’s point, given everything we now know about brain fitness, is there a critical age or age range across the life span where the pillars of good neuroplasticity are especially critical (diet, stress mgmt, mental stimulation, physical exercise)?

10:43
Those pillars are universal, what changes is the relative priority of each based on one’s starting point. For example, kids have a lot of mental stimulation anyway, given they are learning sponges, so perhaps priority is to ensure the other ones are in place. As we get older often the reverse happens, and what we need is much more true mental stimulation. But it depends per person, not per age.

10:45
Let me extend my answer my saying: a) we need to build brain fitness and health on solid pillars (as discussed above), b) additionally, we can build targeted capacities such as working memory, information processing, emotional regulation…and for these there is a more clear case that different age groups have different priorities.

10:46
Comment From Peter Whitehouse
For elders the key is to build on their experience to help create collective community wisdom. Novelty is important but reflection and routines are too.

10:48
Indeed, pattern recognition is critical for wisdom, and random novelty/ sensation seeking is not what we’re talking about. But a common tendency is to rely too much on pattern recognition, which made sense centuries/ millennia ago when our environments were more stable, but today we have to be careful and mindful to adapt to evolving patterns.

10:48
Comment From Colleen C.
In my experience, delivering information is most effective experientially. What can that look like in the education system? I have introduced “Brain Gym” exercises with success. But we need the science behind “exercises” to validate use more widely.

10:51
Good point, people learn to ride a bike by, well, riding a bike. In the education system we have seen some innovative uses of heart rate variability biofeedback to help students better manage stress. We’d love to see more of that. Another interesting signal is that Pearson, the publishing company, acquired Cogmed working memory training and is now approaching schools. We’ll see how that goes. Another good example is a start-up called Brainology, focused more of self-education and self-awareness.

10:51
Comment From Peter Whitehouse
Evidence is good but there are many kinds. Too much emphasis on RCTs can be bad. Enhancing pattern recognition is key, through systems thinking for example. Peter

10:54
Agreed. But randomized controlled trials present a wonderful starting point to filter innovation through, and the NIH evidence review of 2 years ago, whose real findings are still ignored today, are to be taken into account. For example, the BBC show organizing a “brain training” study claimed it didn’t work, and only a few weeks later the NIH study, based on highest evidence RCTs, said cognitive training was one of the protective factors against cognitive decline, so RCTs are a great place to start and to contextualize and understand many of the things reported/ misreported by the media and in our overall culture.

10:54
And we have only five minutes left — will make sure to incorporate new voices to the discussion, so please ask a good question if you haven’t already!

10:55
Comment From Keith
Colleen C. implies an intriguing question: Based on what we know now, what, exactly, should a science-based, highest possible impact “Brain Gym” look like?

10:57
Sorry, impossible to credibly answer that here…I encourage you to read our book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness, and to participate in 2012 SharpBrains Summit.

10:57
Comment From Denis Socarrás-E. (UAH)
Would you give us an advance on the upcoming virtual summit? What relevant topics will be presented/discused there?

10:59
If you go to sharpbrains.com, you can click on 2012 SharpBrains Summit section, and see 10 leading questions we want to address and speakers so far. We’ll have a more defined agenda in a week. For example, first question is, By the year 2015, how will consumers self-monitor their brain health? We’ll bring multiple perspectives, from scientists to technologists to health innovators, to answer that question.

10:59
Comment From Teri
Is there an effort to bring Educators, Scientists, Tech people and Drs. together to talk about brain health?

11:00
2012 SharpBrains Virtual Summit :-) (which we make virtual precisely to make it easier for people of different domains to participate)

11:00
Comment From Trisha
Do you see a place for “brain training coaches” in schools, social service agencies, etc., like fitness trainers in gyms?

11:02
Sure, that will be huge (probably broader than “brain training” to incorporate all “brain fitness” pillars discussed above, more focused on output than on input) and we already see interest there, the question is how to ensure those professionals are qualified/ objective/ providing real value…challenge right now is that many people trying to do that now are married to a particular technique/ product, not really starting with the client in mind.

11:02
We’ll talk a lot about that in the Summit too.

11:03
And we are beyond the hour…so thank you everyone for an excellent conversation! We’ll make the transcript available by the end of the day via sharpbrains.com

Have a nice weekend!

11:04
Comment From Teri
Great. Congratulations again, and thanks.

11:04
Thank you Teri and everyone. We are ending the Q&A session now.

 

Resources referenced in the Q&A:

 

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