How to spark a discussion about brain research
By Garry Foster, President & CEO, Baycrest Foundation
At Baycrest Health Sciences, our focus is brain health and aging. We want people to learn more about what takes place in our labs and how scientific findings are having an impact on the lives of young and old alike, contributing to a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario.
The brain is one of the last frontiers of medical science – and we all have a stake in keeping it healthy. Close to 750,000 people in Canada have some form of cognitive impairment. The number is projected to grow in 15 years to 1.4 million as the population ages. In addition to the heartbreak of having someone you love lose their cognitive function, the cost to society is enormous when around-the-clock care and the lost earnings of family caregivers are considered.
To start a very public conversation about the importance of brain health, the Baycrest Foundation and an enthusiastic committee launched The Brain Project presented by Telus. Many generous sponsors are lending their support. After a call for submissions, 100 artists were selected to create brain sculptures that were placed in highly visible locations throughout Toronto where people can stop, admire the artistry and creativity, read the plaques and consider, for a moment or two, what brain health means to them and their loved ones.
In some cases, the artists were themselves motivated to take part because a family member or close friend has had Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or a traumatic brain injury.
The Brain Project is adding beauty and interest to the Toronto streetscape while putting brain health top of mind. Conversations about brain health are taking place as a result – and amongst people for whom the topic may have been previously unconsidered.
The need to make brain health a priority for people at every age is reflected in the research taking place today. Many of our researchers at the Rotman Research Institute – who are worldwide leaders in the study of memory and cognitive neuroscience – conduct cognitive tests and neuroimaging on healthy people as well as people who have experienced brain damage or disease.
Among other things, they are searching for biomarkers that indicate the onset of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease and aiming to identify interventions that will keep brains healthier longer. Already, our scientists have learned that bilingualism, music and social engagement can make a difference to brain health – and they’re testing a range of other interventions as well. One thing they watch for is changes in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory.
They are also co-leaders of an international project that is creating The Virtual Brain, an integrated computer model of a fully functioning human brain. It simulates how the brain is functioning under normal circumstances, how it changes with aging and how it responds to damage from trauma or disease. In the future, it will be used to test experimental brain therapies on a computer before they are tested on humans.
Baycrest is dedicated to finding solutions that will restore brainpower sooner to people with neurological challenges and change the trajectory on the prevalence of brain disease.
Endeavours like The Brain Project that raise funds and spark discussion play a critical role as our researchers seek breakthroughs in prevention, intervention and early diagnosis that will ease the burden on our healthcare system and create a better and longer future for generations to come.
Read more Health and Community Leaders Talk posts here, and share your own insights about the value of health research on Twitter with our hashtag, #onHWS. Or follow and learn more about The Brain Project on Twitter: @baycrest @supportbaycrest @TheBrainProj
To learn more about how health research makes Ontario healthier, wealthier, and smarter, check out our website and our other blog posts and videos.