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Brain Health Initiative pilot study takes off in Lakewood Ranch

Lakewood Ranch residents will receive participation requests at random.

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  • | 7:50 a.m. June 10, 2020
Brain Health Initiative Executive Director Stephanie Peabody held roundtable discussions with  Lakewood Ranch residents in March.
Brain Health Initiative Executive Director Stephanie Peabody held roundtable discussions with Lakewood Ranch residents in March.
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After months of meeting with Lakewood Ranch residents to learn more about their brain health opinions and perspectives, the Brain Health Initiative is ready to begin its pilot study phase.

This phase will serve as the baseline research for decades to come.

Neuropsychologist Stephanie Peabody, the founder and director of the Brain Health Initiative, said Lakewood Ranch residents will be randomly selected for the pilot study. In the coming weeks, residents will begin receiving invitations through the mail, text messages or by email.

The Brain Health Initiative is a collaboration between the Academy for Brain Health and Performance and Massachusetts General Hospital, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital. 

Peabody said the goal is to have as many randomly-selected participants as possible, although the pilot also will include some volunteers if needed. The exact number of participants, however, is still being determined.

She said each pilot study participant will be assigned a number for identification purposes. Participants use that number for every study-related thing they do. 

“We, the research team, never see who is associated with a particular response,” Peabody said. “What does happen, is that as the data is accumulated, we’ll be able to look across neighborhoods to see (if there are trends).”

Peabody said the research team debated whether to include questions about the COVID-19 health pandemic and, ultimately, determined it will be part of the pilot study.

“When you’re capturing a baseline, the baseline is the experience of what’s happening in the here and now. The here-and-now is COVID — not just the disease — but the experience from a psychological perspective.”

Peabody said no one knows how long the pandemic will last, or when life will go back to “normal.” That, coupled with fear about the virus, could have longterm health consequences. 

“All that potentially has an impact on our ability to be resilient or to fight illness,” Peabody said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also forced the BHI team to rewrite its recruitment process, which originally had in-person methods of recruitment.

“That was going to be a robust part of how we encouraged residents, who were randomly selected, to be part of the study,” Peabody said. “Now, we can’t have that face-to-face. How else can we meaningfully connect?”

Peabody said individuals who participate in the pilot study might — or might not — become participants in the BHI’s decades-long longitudinal study (a research design that involves repeated observations of the same variables over short or long periods of time).

The pilot study, itself, is a one-time event. Peabody said she expects to have a preliminary analysis of the data completed in Winter 2021, but more data will be extrapolated from it for years to come. 

“That preliminary analysis is what we use to create the longitudinal study. That analysis is what we use for federal research funding, like the National Institute of Health. Researchers will take that initial analysis, develop a baseline and determine what questions need to be asked.  

“We’ll design that approach in spring 2021,” Peabody said.

Peabody said it is too early to say what specifically will be included in the longitudinal study besides an annual questionnaire, but there might one day be opportunities for imaging studies and blood donations from participants in the future. Groups of individuals with certain traits or risk factors, for example, might be asked to participate in things like additional surveys or computer-based learning programs.

With the advancement of technologies and tracking devices like FitBit smart watches, the study might one day be able to track participants on a daily basis. 

Those details, however, will evolve over time, Peabody said. The longitudinal study anticipates following some individuals from pre-birth to death.

Having the Brain Health Initiative forge ahead is exciting for Peabody, who as a clinician 20 years ago recognized the need for such research, such as how exercise and nutrition could fight brain illnesses, particularly in degenerative diseases. She thoughts her patients needed to know changes to their lifestyles could have delayed or prevented their conditions.

“I knew we had to do something,” Peabody said. “We had to take a proactive approach if we were going to reduce things like dementia.”

Peabody has developed brain-health focused programs over her career, but her new focus is one she hopes truly will make a difference. 

Over the decades, Peabody and her research team will explore all facets of brain health to determine how lifestyle and other factors can contribute to brain illnesses. It will be a longitudinal study like the Framington Heart Study, which started in 1948 and spanned three generations to learn more about heart health.

“We need to create a model for communities,” Peabody said. “A community could be a family, a church or a school. We can (take that model) anywhere. Anyone can adopt that and follow the recipe to increase brain health outcomes.

“It’s important that people understand lifestyle does matter,” she said. “Brain health matters, and there’s something they can do about it. A lot of people don’t realize they can impact the health of their brain. That’s part of the reason we’re here.”



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