For a long time it was assumed that while, sure, brains were amazing, there wasn’t much you could do for an individual brain besides watch it decline. But scientists have made great strides in understanding the organ’s complexities, and their work is starting to affect our daily lives. Researchers are currently looking into more detailed brain imaging, better genetic-risk profiling, and dementia-related biomarkers in blood, urine, and spinal fluid—and that’s just diagnostics.
“In the past five to 10 years, the pace of brain research has sped up in all areas, from understanding cognitive decline to identifying steps we can take to reduce our risk of dementia to developing new treatments for Alzheimer’s,” says Brooks Kenny, executive director of WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s. “I think this is because the public, doctors, policymakers, and private-sector leaders are all recognizing that brain health is essential to individuals’ health and public health in today’s aging society.” There’s still work to be done, but here are three exciting areas of development.
A new way of thinking
“Brain health is really a whole new category,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “When people talk about brain health, they talk about it as the absence of disease and injury, but that’s not the same as making your brain healthy.”
That wider view is what drives the BrainHealth Project, a study that looks at not only participants’ cognition, but also their well-being, social interactions, and daily routine. In the study, people are given the BrainHealth Index to arrive at a score more nuanced than, say, IQ (which Chapman says is outdated and comes with stigma), and each participant is paired with a coach to help them improve it via personalized healthy habits, such as doing critical-thinking tasks at times of the day when their brain is sharpest. In the initial 12-week trial, 80% of the participants improved their scores. “We know that a healthy brain is really the driver of all our life decisions to make us healthier,” says Chapman.