During Brain Awareness Week and beyond, collaboration is key

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Every March, we celebrate Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. This year, I am especially excited as support for efforts to better understand the brain seems to be gaining tremendous momentum.

{mosads}A recent U.S. News & World Report article notes that presidential candidates from both parties have talked publicly about the need to spend more on medical research, and Congress has for the first time in a dozen years significantly increased the budget for the National Institutes of Health, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency that conducts research and awards grants to research institutions. And the president’s budget request for 2017 includes $195 million, an increase of $45 million, for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Additionally, the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced that — following years of uncertainty surrounding the causes, effects and treatments for concussions — members of Congress will work with staff members and medical experts from a variety of backgrounds to review these injuries and their implications this year.

This collaboration is precisely what’s needed right now.

Tremendous efforts have been directed toward better understanding how the human brain works and fails to work, especially over the last decade. But we have only begun to scratch the surface. We need to make some changes in order to get to the next level.

First, the majority of attention worldwide has focused on how brain injuries and brain diseases limit a person’s life. We’ve been ignoring the brain’s remarkable ability to work around injuries and problems. Our narrow lens leaves people feeling powerless and hopeless with an overwhelming sense that little can be done to improve brain and cognitive performance — when in fact, the brain can be strengthened and repaired months, even years, after injury with the right interventions.

We already have the potential to improve dramatically the mental capacity of all Americans, regardless of age, even those who have experienced serious brain illness or injury.

Second, a major reason for such a narrow focus is that, in trying to unlock the complexities of brain function, diverse disciplines attempt to do their work in relative isolation from the other disciplines. For example, molecular biologists seek solutions to advance understanding of the genetic underpinnings of a disease, while medicine seeks to reach diagnoses. Similarly, cognitive neuroscientists work to characterize how brain systems break down in support of cognitive function.

We need to break research out of these silos and truly collaborate. The future of brain health will expand exponentially when cognitive neuroscientists, medical doctors, molecular biologists, neuroengineers and other interdisciplinary team members come together to discover ways to promote brain performance in health, neurologic injury, psychiatric disturbance and brain disease.

That is the fastest way to find real solutions that can change lives for all people — today.

The pursuit of lasting brain health is one of the most exciting and urgent challenges we face. Brain health among military service members is being called into question. Advanced reasoning skills in American students are falling behind those of other developed countries. Depression is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost of $17 billion to $44 billion to employers. Among healthy adults, cognitive brain performance peaks, on average, in our early 40s, and, estimates suggest the number of those living with Alzheimer’s will triple by 2050.

There are improvements to be made, but we have to work smarter and more strategically together if we are going to make them.

In this spirit, I applaud Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and others in Washington who have spoken out on this brain health movement, for recognizing the need to bring together experts from across health-related professions to increase collaboration, have a thoughtful dialogue and move the conversation forward to realizable actions to improve lives today.

I hope other potential collaborators take note and follow suit, as there is much to be gained from doing so.

As we unlock our brain’s potential, we will thrive economically and learn to think better. In thinking better, we’ll become happier, more productive, more competitive and ultimately more successful people, communities and businesses. Brain awareness should be elevated to center focus since our health starts, and ends, with brain health.

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

Tags BRAIN Brain Awareness Week brain health Brain injury Fred Upton National Institutes of Health NIH

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