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Brain health gets a boost with Vital Signs screener

Brain Health Initiative founder Stephanie Peabody
Brain Health Initiative founder Stephanie Peabody
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According to a group of scientists, professors and brain health experts, the Brain Health Initiative, based in Lakewood Ranch, is just beginning to produce a crescendo that will peak with a simple question being asked by primary care doctors throughout the world.

"How is your brain health?"

It's a question that isn't being asked in today's society, and according to the brain health experts, it will transform the way doctors view patients, and the way patients live their lives.

"We are beginning a brain health revolution," said Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of the University of California-San Francisco who has performed neuroplasticity research for five decades. "We have had the indications of a growing wave of support. It's going to mean reduced human suffering."

Experts in the field, including Lakewood Ranch's Stephanie Peabody, a neuropsychologist and the founder and executive director of the Florida Brain Health Initiative, had gathered to herald the start of the BHI's Brain Health Vital Signs screener.

Beginning Sept. 28, the general public is being invited to take part in BHI's Vital Signs.

Peabody, speaking last week from the World Economic Forum in New York City, said the program will result in teaching literacy in terms of "What can you do today to improve your brain health?

"Our work is so invaluable," Peabody said. "The public doesn't understand how many aspects of the community we are touching. Now the community can stand up and be a part of this research."

Limited awareness

Harvard lecturer and BHI scientist Shelley Carson said research indicates the public had limited awareness and knowledge of how lifestyle factors can affect brain health. She said the Vital Signs study will increase public awareness of those factors.

Anyone 14 and older can participate in Vital Signs by going to to enroll. Participation is on a volunteer basis and is entirely anonymous.

BHI explains Vital Signs as "a tool set designed to help our medical professionals and the general public work together to more effectively manage the brain health of children and adults of all ages."

Peabody said Vital Signs is a user-friendly screening tool that measures evidence-based factors contributing to brain health. The screener was developed by scientists and clinicians from BHI, Harvard and other experts in neuroscience, neurodevelopment, psychopathology, neuropsychology, and aging.

The screener includes five self-report "subscales" that measure current and preexisting risk factors for brain illness, 10 self-report subscales that measure lifestyle protective factors, and a battery of neuropsychological assessments that measure current cognitive functioning.

Those who participate will be provided with personalized scores, interpretations, and tips for improvement for each risk and protective factor.

Michael Jaffee, the chair of Neurology at the University of Florida, said the screening tool hopefully will open discussions between patients and their health care providers.

"The big picture is that this can move us from what and why … to how," Jaffee said. "We are moving beyond the science and it is evolving. We know that by the discussions being held on the legislative level."

Leads to changes

Jaffee said the advancement in brain health awareness is leading to changes at the university level in terms of classes being added to the student offerings. "We've had had some discussions (about adding more brain health classes) and we are in the middle of a progression. The field is broadening. Are we there yet? Not yet. But, man, do we have momentum."

Merzenich said a huge difference in the immediate future will be that no longer will doctors and patients wait until disaster strikes to deal with a brain issue. He said a common belief in the field was that the human brain developed as an infant and as a very young child and from there, "nothing could change the brain ... it only could deteriorate."

The reasons for that way of thinking were many, but Merzenich noted, "First, you can't see it because it is inside your skull. But when you look into the mirror, you have a pretty good idea about the state of things. We also confused the brain with the mind. We didn't view it as a flesh and blood organ."

Carson said with the rate of dementia increasing, people are more open to increasing their brain health.

"They are learning that we not only can treat (brain diseases), but prevent them," Carson said. 

However, Carson also said people have to overcome the stigma that revealing that you might have a brain illness is somehow substandard.

"We need to give people a common language to reduce that stigma," Carson said. "There is no shame in needing a tuneup of your brain."

Merzenich said brain health screening, such as Vital Signs, is the first step toward implementing better brain health practices. 

"Our general population has not quite caught up with a revolution in brain science that has now shown us, in crystal clear terms, that our brain health and performance are a direct function of our lifelong lifestyle patterns and engagement of the most important organs," he said. "Assessing simple functioning of neurological performance and protective factors, as well as identifying common neurological risks via this BHVS tool-set, is akin to defining your physical performance in a fitness center wellness program . It is key for intelligently strengthening and sustaining your neurological powers of ‘brain plasticity.’'

Peabody noted that Vital Signs is not meant to diagnose any particular illness and that it does not replace consultation with a doctor or healthcare professional. However, she said the screener might help in identifying potential brain health concerns.

A validated measure

"The brain needs to be assessed and we have created a validated measure of risk and protective factors," Peabody said. "Use sleep as an example. This can be a health promoter and have a ripple effect. But we don't have time in a wellness visit to study your sleep."

Peabody is hoping a program such as Vital Signs can be something used in wellness visits and that the annual health assessment of the brain can be taken. She sees an app on a phone as being able to monitor the health of the brain.

"You can go to your link, here is your profile, now what do I do about it," she said. "Behind all of this, we will be building a technology that will link you a (brain health) coach."

With his decades of research, Merzenich said the current breakthroughs are long overdue.

"We all have understood how our physical status affects our health and longevity," Merzenich said. "But where the hell was the brain exam?

"Now we have found that everyone is improvable. We just need ways to measure performance."

Informing the public

Peabody said all that has taken place since BHI was founded in 2019 is a process. Along the way, it involves informing the public and connecting with primary care physicians.

Establishing a brain health program at Lakewood Ranch Prep has established a model that soon could spread to schools all over the country according to Peabody.

"Working with the kiddos, we are teaching them that the brain is an organ to think about," she said. "Lakewood Ranch Prep is a prototype. Boy, does the program have momentum.

"Is brain health important?" Peabody asked rhetorically. "Yes. Are you assessing your brain health? All but 1% (surveyed) say no. They don't have the time. So we went to work to create a tool. What we have accomplished so far is extraordinary if you look at the collaboratives we have who are part of the science, the outreach and the training. It's like, 'Wow!' And this has come out of Lakewood Ranch. I think that is pretty cool."

Jaffee said the wave is growing.

"We never have had more traction than we do right now," he said. "We have more innovative partnerships. Last year, Congress passed a Brain Health Day (July 22)."

"To most people, the brain is a black box," Carson said. "Research has expanded to see inside that black box. We know we can manipulate and manage its power." 



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.