The increasingly aging population has placed the issue of brain health and its associated issues under the spotlight once again. While age and genetics are uncontrollable risk factors for poor brain health, a reminder to all individuals to practice risk reduction makes good sense if heads as well as hearts are to be looked after.
Current figures make for grim reading. Worldwide there are over 450 million people living with neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.1 The costs needed in order to care for these patients are staggering. In 40 years, it is reckoned that the cost of caring for 14 million Alzheimer’s victims will likely exceed $1 trillion in the US annually.2
The sheer complexity of the brain means its understanding is limited. It is estimated that knowledge of the brain’s function is around 50 years behind that of nearly every other organ in the body.3 What is known for certain is the effect diet plays on the function of the brain. Physical exercise has also proven essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage new brain cells.4
Risk reduction, not only for better brain health, but for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and obesity has been identified as the way forward in refining the national health agenda. Government austerity measures worldwide have hit health budgets hard in such a way that the old adage: ‘Prevention is better than cure,’ has never rung truer.
This approach has meant more of an emphasis on lifestyle changes for the long-term in which individuals take on more responsibility for their own health. In adopting this approach, it is hoped healthcare systems worldwide can make the savings in clinical efficiency and reduce wastage.5,6
There is another piece to this complex puzzle as to how health, especially brain health, can be maintained into old age. While neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disease cases can never fully be reversed early diagnosis and disease management can aid greatly in slowing down its progression and increase the quality of life for many patients and their families. Many brain disorders are chronic and progressive diseases that require long-term treatment. The thinking here is an early diagnosis or intervention may prevent a patient unnecessarily undergoing stressful and expensive treatments at a later stage.5,6
The progress made in order to achieve this has resulted in collaborations between Governments, the public, academic, and private sector. Earlier this year, GE Healthcare and John Donoghue at Brown University teamed up to develop ultra-small, wireless, implantable recording and stimulation systems to electrically communicate with individual neurons. These tiny devices are being designed to monitor brain function and allow the development of treatments for a wide range of brain diseases.
Likewise a working relationship with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has been established to develop technologies that blend basic neuroscience with new biomarkers and biosignatures. The objective is to eventually detect underlying cellular changes that lead to degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease, so diagnoses happen earlier and treatments can be developed more effectively.
Great advances in healthcare depend greatly on new tools than on new concepts. One valuable trend has been the development of new technologies such as neuroimaging that are permitting more advanced interrogation of the brain. Higher quality brain images play a huge part in recognizing and making better informed decisions in the patient’s best interests.
In March 2013, GE Healthcare and the National Football League (NFL) entered into a $60 million collaboration to speed diagnosis and improve treatment for mild traumatic brain injury for the benefit of athletes, members of the military, and society overall.
In addition to the research, the two companies are investing up to $20 million in an open innovation program called the Head Health Challenge to generate ideas for new and improved safety equipment. One of the winners in the first stage is a team made up of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), San Francisco, CA- UCSF and Ayasdi, a Silicon Valley start-up.
The winning entry used a special technique to analyze the data that MRI and CAT scans of the brain produce. This technique, called Topological Data Analysis (TDA) is designed to allow researchers to gain detailed insights from their data without the need to write code, queries, or ask questions.
Crunching big data in this way has been shown to generate new insights about the brain. Collaborations with public and private consortiums, using advanced computing technologies to integrate anatomic and functional brain imaging data, has provided the very clues that could help treat brain disorders more effectively and maintain brain health for generations to come.
1,3 – GE Brain Health Fact Sheet
4 – Jenq-Lin Yang J.L, Y.T Lin, P.C Chuang, V.A. Bohr, M.P Mattson, BDNF and Exercise Enhance Neuronal DNA Repair by Stimulating CREB-Mediated Production of Apurinic/Apyrimidinic Endonuclease. NeuroMolecular Medicine, Volume 16, Issue 1 , pp 161-174