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Brain Health

Synopsis B·Debate - “The medical challenge of the 21st century is for humans maintain a healthy brain throughout life”

Thanks to advances in medicine and public health in recent decades, we’re living longer lives, however new challenges have appeared, like curbing the impact of cognitive deterioration associated with ageing and neurodegenerative diseases.


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The brain is the organ that defines us as a species and as individuals. It is the most complex of all of those in the human body, the newest from a phylogenetic standpoint and the least understood. “We know more about the genome than about how the nervous system works,” admits Josep Maria Tormos, B·Debate scientific coordinator, “and this lack of understanding makes it difficult to know what has gone wrong and how to fix it.”

Now, with people living longer and longer lives, this organ is taking center stage. “The crisis we are facing is that we are ageing with healthy hearts but can't remember who we are,” says Álvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and member of the scientific committee for the event.

Properly understanding and studying the brain’s complexity requires a multidisciplinary approach. On this Europe and the United States agree, bringing together the most advanced researchers in neuroscience, artificial intelligence and information and communication technology in two strategic projects: The Human Brain Project and BRAIN, respectively. Both of these are aimed at discovering how the brain works using cutting-edge strategies, methods and equipment.

And this was also the philosophy of the scientific debate Brain Health. From Genes to Behavior, Improving Our Life, where the top international experts in this field presented the results of their research at B·Debate, an initiative of Biocat and the "la Caixa" Foundation, co-organized in this case by Institut Guttmann and sponsored by BILAT USA 2.0, a project that promotes cooperation between Europe and the United States. researchers from all of these disciplines debated the future of brain health.

According to Tormos, we can look to successful biomedical research methods to tackle problems with huge repercussions on society, with perhaps the best example being the study of risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. “A combination of descriptive epidemiology studies, incorporating the most advanced technology available at any time, made it possible to identify risk factors, launch prevention campaigns and define new therapeutic targets and treatments. Thanks to this, over the past 60 years deaths from heart disease have dropped not a little, not by half, but to one third of the previous levels,” says the coordinator of research at Institut Guttmann, the benchmark hospital in Catalonia in treatment and comprehensive rehabilitation for people with neurological disabilities. 

There are some conclusions of this debate. Josep Maria Tormos says that “the great biomedical challenge of the 21st century is for humans maintain a healthy brain throughout life”. Neuroscientists are committed to a strategy that has been a resounding success in other fields of medicine: prevention. A healthy, active brain is better prepared to face the passing of time and the possible injuries or illnesses it may encounter. As a key tool in prevention, they call for the creation of an objective index, to be included in medical check-ups, measuring brain health at each age and in each individual. 

Furthermore, advances in the fields of biomedicine, neuroscience, robotics and computers promise to revolutionize our understanding of this organ, which is still little known, and contribute new strategies to keep it healthy and help it recover after an injury. 

The adage mens sana in corpore sano is true, but it goes both ways: some conditions accelerate cognitive deterioration and preventing them can improve brain health, but the brain also has an effect on body health, so a healthy brain helps better regulate our metabolic system and keeps us healthier. 

Genetics plays a key role in brain health, and some genetic profiles can protect us or make us more prone to a specific disease, but there are many ways to keep the nervous system healthy. Exercise, years of schooling, diet, sleep and socializing are some of the factors involved.

Doing exercise has an overall effect on the brain, but we can also exercise specific cognitive functions using computer software. In fact, some types of videogames stimulate specific cognitive abilities, although they should only be used for appropriate periods of time without sacrificing the other aspects mentioned, such as physical exercise and social activities.


10 factors to keep in mind

10 factors that impact brain health, according to scientific evidence:

  • A balance diet
  • Aerobic physical exercise
  • Meditation and other practices of mindfulness
  • Positive social relations
  • Type and number of recreational activities
  • Sleep quality
  • Work activity (in terms of demand for cognitive activity)
  • Years of schooling
  • Stress management
  • Cognitive training

For Pascual-Leone, a healthy brain “has the necessary network of connections to enjoy a full life.” And this network, like the needs it responds to, changes over time. “It’s not about having a 17-year-old brain in a 90-year-old body. It’s about having the best, healthiest brain possible at any age,” says the neuroscientist.

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Push-ups for the brain as well The healthier the brain is, the better it can face injury, illness and ageing. We now know that genetics plays a key role in brain health. Geneticist John Harvey, of the Institute of Neurology in London, has identified numerous genes associated with neurological conditions like dementia or diseases like Parkinson.

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“Despite having a small, immature brain, children are great learners,” says Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, head of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory (France). In order to understand the human brain, we must know both how it works and how it develops.

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