09/18/2013 12:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2013

Where Brain Health Meets Digital Health and Big Data

The year 2013 is an exciting time to have a brain. Over the past two decades, our under­stand­ing of the human brain has grown exponentially. Fueled by this new infor­ma­tion, the num­ber and vari­ety of brain appli­ca­tions avail­able com­mer­cially is explod­ing, poten­tially trans­form­ing the way we care for our brains across our entire lifespan.

Hav­ing a brain is not a med­ical con­di­tion, yet in prac­tice that seems to be our unspoken assumption. The truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary and often untold story these days is about the tools becom­ing avail­able to con­sumers to take bet­ter care of their own brain health and per­for­mance, thanks to new dig­i­tal plat­forms that can access large quan­ti­ties of data. This trend can take brain health (and health over­all) to a whole new level, away from its tra­di­tional overem­pha­sis on a con­stel­la­tion of med­ical con­di­tions, phar­ma­co­log­i­cal inter­ven­tions and small clin­i­cal trials.

While neu­ro­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions take a ter­ri­ble toll on soci­ety, from ADHD to depres­sion and Alzheimer's dis­ease, it is time for a new par­a­digm that doesn't address each of them in iso­la­tion. True brain health requires pre­serv­ing and enhanc­ing a vari­ety of cog­ni­tive, emo­tional and exec­u­tive func­tion­al­ity, going far beyond the absence of dis­ease. A holis­tic brain health approach, addi­tion­ally, would serve as the best way to delay, if not pre­vent, the neu­ro­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions men­tioned above.

This oppor­tu­nity is becom­ing true thanks to a nascent cul­tural shift. Pre­vi­ously a pas­sive party in the health ­care process, con­sumers are assum­ing a more active role. Accord­ing to Sharp­Brains' 2013 mar­ket report, con­sumers have sur­passed health care and insur­ance providers to become the dri­ving force behind brain health inno­va­tion. We are see­ing an increased aware­ness mak­ing brain health and fit­ness a pri­or­ity for soci­ety at large, not just those affected by par­tic­u­lar dis­or­ders. For exam­ple, adults of all ages are tak­ing proac­tive care of their "brain fit­ness," and employ­ers are invest­ing in cor­po­rate well­ness ini­tia­tives that tar­get both body and brain, in an effort to increase the resilience and per­for­mance of their lead­ers and whole workforce.

And con­sider the broader trends high­light­ing the impor­tance of phys­i­cal fit­ness and empowering con­sumers and patients to take care of their own health. What can be more impor­tant in tak­ing care of one's body than tak­ing care of one's brain? Since we don't see this cru­cial organ in the mir­ror, it's all too easy to for­get those bil­lions of neu­rons and con­nec­tions. But the research pic­ture is increas­ingly clear... what we do, every sin­gle day, has an impact on our brain health. For bet­ter or worse, our choices and behav­iors impact our life-long brain develop­ment, and the way we treat our brain today will affect our over­all health and qual­ity of life years from now.

Empow­er­ing every­one with a brain to opti­mize that brain will require wide­spread access to val­i­dated assess­ments and inter­ven­tions as well as a well-informed under­stand­ing of how to nav­i­gate and use them. We are still early in this process, but we should be aware that accel­er­at­ing inno­va­tion is poised to enable sys­tem­atic brain health self-monitoring and self-care, in turn trans­forming what it means to live healthy and ful­fill­ing lives. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of inex­pen­sive, data-rich tech­nolo­gies means more indi­vid­u­als will start to mea­sure and track men­tal func­tions over time, gain­ing insights into brain changes, and bet­ter guid­ing self-care efforts. This also means that health providers will face new oppor­tu­ni­ties, and challenges.

It is excit­ing to imag­ine the pos­si­bil­i­ties at the inter­sec­tion of brain health, dig­i­tal gealth and big data, but get­ting there requires address­ing imme­di­ate ques­tions con­fronting us today:

  • How can we har­ness large new brain research ini­tia­tives to max­i­mize their future health and well-being benefits?
  • How can orga­ni­za­tions max­i­mize the resilience and pro­duc­tiv­ity of their human resources?
  • What is the future of per­sonal brain health, and how can big data help upgrade brain care?
  • How can prac­ti­tion­ers inte­grate emerg­ing neuroplasticity-based inter­ven­tions with exist­ing stan­dards of care?
  • What are future con­sumer appli­ca­tions of bio-sensing neurotechnology?

These are pre­cisely the type of ques­tions that over 100 pio­neers at the fron­tier of brain health and dig­i­tal inno­va­tion will be dis­cussing later this week at the 2013 Sharp­Brains Vir­tual Sum­mit (Sep­t. 19-20), chaired by eight trailblazers named Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, bring­ing together diverse per­spec­tives from the worlds of sci­ence, medi­cine, tech­nol­ogy, and busi­ness to pool efforts across tra­di­tional silos.

While there is much we still do not know about our brains, we do know that the sta­tus quo is not an option. It is leav­ing us woe­fully unpre­pared to meet cur­rent and future demands. We also know that what­ever unfolds will inevitably impact each and every one of us on a very inti­mate level. You can't get any more per­sonal than your own brain. Thus, it really is up to all of us to par­tic­i­pate in this grow­ing trans­for­ma­tion as indi­vid­u­als and pro­fes­sion­als. After all, what bet­ter way to improve our brains than to under­stand and apply the lat­est sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy to enhance our orga­ni­za­tions and ourselves?

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