Improving our nation’s brain health

Through all stages of life, Americans can do much more to protect and enhance the health of their brains. That is the message of the inaugural Brain Health Summit titled The Human Brain: Resilience and Regeneration, convening this Monday in Washington, DC, and focusing on improving brain health and performance through research, education and programs of action.

Impaired brain function from illness or injury can affect anyone, at any age. A young child is diagnosed with autism. A high school athlete fights to recover from a concussion.  A warrior returns home from battle with a head injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. A senior is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Such conditions can be debilitating, depressing and life-limiting.  

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Until recently, they were also viewed as irreversible and unchangeable, because the brain itself was thought to be static and unchangeable. But science is showing us that the body’s most important organ is not static after all. In fact, throughout our entire lives, our brains continue to manufacture new cells, grow, change and repair themselves, and form complex connections.

The implications of these discoveries are immensely hopeful for those living with cognitive impairment: people can recover brain function to some degree after traumatic injury; cognitive decline due to aging can be slowed; and social brain networks can be improved.   

In healthy children and adults, there is much more we can do to maximize the brain’s thinking capacity and to ward off low achievement and cognitive decline. We know that students can learn higher-order critical reasoning skills in adolescence that will help them academically in high school, college, and life. And simple changes in a person’s focus while thinking – such as avoiding multi-tasking, grasping the big picture, and embracing the unknown – can improve cognitive performance among older adults. 

Despite all the promising new research, advances in brain science have not gotten the attention they deserve from policy makers and the public. Fortunately, that is beginning to change.

In an important step, President Obama proposes to double federal funding for his Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The President has described the initiative as “giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.” The initiative directs several federal agencies to make use of new technologies to map the brain’s structure and processes used in thinking and memory, with the goal of better preventing, diagnosing and treating brain impairments.

This effort comes at a critical time as our nation faces unprecedented cognitive health challenges. One in 68 children is on the autism spectrum. Two out of three graduating seniors are unprepared for college. Traumatic brain injuries have increased 182 percent among our troops in the last decade. And one in nine people age 65 and older (an estimated 5 million older Americans) have Alzheimer’s disease.

To achieve better brain health nationwide, a few things are essential. We need to propel the creation of public-private partnerships to tackle and invigorate the most important and looming public health question – our brain’s health. We need to work together to accurately assess the safety and efficacy of certain treatments to better serve patients suffering from cognitive disorders. We need to transform awareness to incentivize people to adopt healthy brain habits. And we must generate new knowledge of the brain at all system levels to yield new treatments to build resilience or regenerate brain function.

Monday’s Brain Health Summit will highlight the work of dedicated scientists, advocates and policymakers to improve brain health fitness for all Americans, including students, aging adults, athletes and military service members. Our hope is that our discussions will generate new ideas on ways to advance understanding of how to solve brain health from a national perspective by identifying new pathways for research, new strategic partnerships, and more.  And that the participation of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), along with our other featured speakers, will help shine a light on this very critical issue and motivate Americans to take action. 

Better brain health for all Americans is an ambitious goal, yes, but we can achieve it. We cannot afford not to.

We are discovering that the human brain has a seemingly limitless ability to adapt, recover and overcome. Let’s keep working to apply what we have learned to enhance brain health for all.

Chapman, Ph.D. is the founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.