In an increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy, human brains—not capital—are becoming the primary drivers of business success. Engaged, creative workers can mean the difference between business success and failure.
When looking at the problem from the perspective of optimal brain health, there are significant issues playing out across a broad spectrum: How does a person, an organization or even a country achieve peak performance? And how do we cope with injuries to the brain?
The numbers are actually staggering.
“Brain and nervous system disorders account for more hospitalizations, long-term care and chronic suffering than nearly all other illnesses combined, resulting in a global economic burden of greater than $2 trillion per year.” (Source: “The Neurotechnology Industry 2011 Report,” NeuroInsights.)
According to a report by the Canadian Mental Health Association, each day an estimated 500,000 Canadians miss work due to brain health issues. This absenteeism is estimated to account for 70% of all workforce disability costs.
Innovation economics, a dominant policy for the 21st century, shows convincingly that the lion’s share of steady economic growth is determined by productivity and innovation. It is only through actions taken by workers, companies, entrepreneurs and governments that an economy’s true productive and innovative power is unleashed.
So how do we build brain capital?
Enter “cognitive reserve,” a concept highlighted during the 2012 SharpBrains Virtual Summit. Ideas around cognitive reserve arise from observed inconsistencies between the extent of brain pathology and the clinical manifestations of brain changes. Two people may have the same degree of pathology but exhibit very different manifestations of disease.
Many epidemiological studies point to the power of brain reserve: some people actually cope better with brain damage. Why? Their brain networks are more flexible and adaptable. Network theory is a powerful tool for understanding the human brain in this way.
What can we do about it?
Factors affecting cognitive reserve are largely environmental and therefore under our individual and societal control. We know that certain life experiences—bilingualism, for example—can help build brain reserve, create more synapses and impart complementary anatomic changes to the brain.
As mature adults then, are we beyond experiencing meaningful brain changes? Far from it.
Cognitive reserve is a malleable capacity. At the SharpBrains summit, Peter Whitehouse presented a very hopeful message: we can actively intervene for better brain health—both genetic and experiential components are at play. Education, occupation and challenging leisure activities—almost anything that requires a person to perform at their maximum capacity—will all enhance cognitive reserve. Alvaro Fernandez, a co-founder of SharpBrains, even created an online course empowering consumers to become their own “brain fitness coaches.”
Building personal brain capital is a continuous process, and each life stage event contributes to reserve in later life. Just think of education as a component of health: it opens the door to big changes in how we view all kinds of activities that promote brain reserve.
One size does not fit all.
It is now evident that specific programs of activity impact specific brain regions. These effects are visible through brain imaging, and their qualitative benefits are measurable. However, the effects appear to be limited to targeted domains—play a game that improves your speed of processing and it will indeed improve, but it won’t necessarily lead to improvements in other cognitive capacities. Thus, computer games can be very precise and powerful tools used for acquiring specific skills or they can simply train your brain to remember lots of facts.
Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and the co-founder of Brainrush and Anti-AgingGames.com, spoke at length about neurogames as fast tracks to learning and maintaining brain plasticity throughout life.
All my friends and relatives know about my passion for understanding the inner workings of the human brain. But what most of them really like to hear about are specific recipes that they can follow to improve their health. After all, as consumers we don’t care about our individual organs, we simply want to be healthy. Our brains learn and allow us to act in the world and to accomplish things that are important to us as individuals.
In my work at Cogniciti, a company co-founded by Baycrest and MaRS Discovery District, I’ve looked in depth at the interface of brain function and health: How are personal aggravations, caused by failing memory, described to family doctors? And what is typically done about them?
The current state of the brain-health interface is well captured by this quote from one of our pilot customers: “As I look online through these forums—Google searches as well as what my doctors tell me—I am surprised I have yet to see a firm answer.”
Market research findings support this point:
At Cogniciti, our research and development efforts have been aimed at addressing issues inherent to the consumer-healthcare interface. After all, forgetfulness is transient by nature and attitudes of dismissal and resignation still prevail.
How do we identify potential problems early?
How do we best design a self-administered tool for the early identification of potential problems? How can we address the gap between emerging science and consumer understanding?
Cogniciti has been attacking the root problem for consumers. There is still no quick, inexpensive and reliable tool that a person can use to indicate whether the cognitive changes they are experiencing are normal and age related or whether they are possibly indicative of health issues. We believe that early assessment—along with science-based education and interventions—will play an ever more critical role in brain health.
For individuals who are experiencing normal, age-related cognitive changes, knowing that their cognitive performance falls within the range expected for their age should help alleviate their anxieties and reduce unnecessary visits to health professionals. For those who have health issues beyond what is expected with normal aging, combining a timely visit to the doctor’s office with a means to clearly explain specific areas of cognitive difficulty will help doctors decide whether or not further investigation is warranted.
The idea of cognitive reserve implies that individuals can use a specific brain network more efficiently, employ different cognitive strategies and call upon alternate brain networks to achieve better cognitive performance. Unfortunately, to date, we’ve discovered no single direct route to this desirable end.
The benefits of meditation
The closest thing to a silver bullet is perhaps meditation. A growing body of research indicates the correlation between meditation and neuroplasticity. It seems that meditation transforms both the architecture and functioning of our brains.
At the SharpBrains summit, Michael Posner highlighted one recent study showing that after practising meditation for a minimum of 11 hours over a one-month period, increases in both nerve density and myelin formation were found to have occurred in the subjects’ brains. This work is part of a series of published papers showing that meditation causes significant, measurable changes in physical connectivity within the attentional network of the brain, that is, the network of the brain involved in self-regulation and control.
Other research has found that meditation improves changes in mood and the ability to manage stress.
There is no established template for optimal brain health. Lifestyle factors and overall health conditions can include myriad obstructions to brain fitness. And yet the science is clear: Brain health is at the very foundation of our greater health and prosperity. We as individuals and as societies fail to enhance it at our peril.
Use it or lose it, as they say.