Focus on research: Prof Sabina Brennan, Adapt

Sabina Brennan, Adapt
Sabina Brennan, Adapt

Discussing brain health, mind gyms and the importance of life-long learning

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5 July 2018 | 0

Prof Sabina Brennan is a member of the Adapt centre for research into digital content with an interest in brain health and dementia. She is founder and CEO of Trinity Brain Health, and has received the Trinity Innovation Award for Societal Impact for her work on science communication.

Your work looks at dementia and cognitive decline, can you go into a little bit of detail into what you are working on?
My research aims to increase our understanding of brain health and dementia risk. I am particularly interested in modifiable lifestyle factors that influence cognitive outcomes that have the potential to boost brain health, reduce dementia risk, delay the onset of dementia symptoms or change the trajectory of the disease.

We have completed a comprehensive assessment including neuropsychological, physical and psychosocial assessments together with a range of health, behaviour and lifestyle assessments of a cohort of 1,000 adults aged over 50. Funding permitting, our aim is to follow them over time to increase our understanding of how cognitive function changes with age and how this change is related to the various factors that we measure.

I am also passionate about sharing science. I collate and transform scientific research about brain health and dementia risk into easy-to-understand animations, websites, apps and other interventions. My aim is to entertain and educate while empowering people to be more proactive about their brain health and through my work I also hope inform the development of public health interventions that focus on preventing cognitive decline and promoting active and healthy ageing.

People are happy to go to the gym as part of an active lifestyle but maintaining brain health doesn’t have the same level of interest. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s down to a number of things really. First of all, there’s the location of your brain inside you skull. It’s easy to forget about it because it’s not in your line of sight. I also think the invention of ‘the mind’ has created an artificial disconnect between the physical brain and our behaviours, thoughts and emotions. People don’t readily make the connection between their behaviour and their brain. Many people fail to see the brain as an organ whose functioning is impacted by what they eat or drink and by what they do or don’t do. But I guess that’s the way it used to be for the heart and now thanks to increased awareness of lifestyle factors that influence heart health we are seeing improvements in cardiovascular health.

The brain is so brilliant and usually works so well that people rarely give it a second thought. But I do think that is changing. Certainly, judging by the people who come to my talks, older people are more attuned to brain health. But it shouldn’t just be older people. Brain health is for everyone and the earlier you start looking after it the better. My mission is to get everyone looking after their brain health in the same way that they look after their dental health. While people may not be consciously aware of the importance of brain health or the distinction between brain health and mental health that doesn’t mean that they aren’t already making life choices that boost brain health. You mentioned going to the gym – the thing is physical exercise is actually one of the best things that you can do for brain health.

Brain training games seem to have found their niche. Do they work or are they, at best, a pleasant distraction?
Any new experience that involves mental effort will bring about changes in the neural systems that support the acquisition of that new skill. So yes, changes will occur with computer games but they will also occur with any novel mentally stimulating activity such as learning a new language, learning how to juggle, learning to play a new musical instrument or finding your way around a new town on holiday.

A recent consensus statement on the brain training industry from the scientific community stated that while some training produces statistically significant improvement in the practiced skill, the consensus of the group is that claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading. More research is needed and findings need to be replicated by independent researchers with no financial interest in the product.

My own view is that there are plenty of brain-healthy activities that you can engage in for free. For example physical exercise improves attention, reasoning and some aspects of memory while increasing blood flow to the brain and supporting new neural connections. The consensus report also echoes my own feelings that time spent playing games is time not spent engaging in other activities such as socialising, exercising and reading that benefit physical, mental and brain health.

STEM subjects have a reputation among second-level students as being difficult. As someone who came to Psychology later in life do you think that’s justified or a product of social factors?
I think that it is very individual. When it comes to study I think the most important thing is to choose something that interests you. I have always been fascinated by human behaviour and by the brain and so that made getting my head around some of the more challenging aspects of the degree much easier.

However, perceptions do matter. A recent survey revealed that two-thirds of respondents felt that a high IQ was a requirement for a STEM-related job. I think the portrayal of scientists, techies, engineers and mathematicians as super intelligent in film and television probably helps to perpetuate that myth. I think females are less likely to view themselves as having the right ‘aptitude’ for STEM and that is a serious myth that needs busting.

That same study also revealed that the main reason that people avoided STEM subjects at school was because they found them dull, uninteresting and less fun than the humanities. So perhaps there is a job of work to be done to change that perception because far from finding psychology and neuroscience dull and boring I found them riveting and fascinating. Perhaps we also need to look at teaching methods as well as perceptions.

As a science communicator, what kind of problems do you think researchers have in reaching a general audience? Does it matter whether they do or not?
I think that it matters hugely. I believe that we, as scientists, have an ethical and moral responsibility to share our knowledge with the general public in an accessible way. Knowledge is power and we mustn’t keep that power to ourselves, especially as so much research is funded through taxes.

I think that there is an inherent snobbery in academia that places lesser value on science communication than on academic publications. I believe that both have value and both are important and both play a role in progress and in attaining social impact. I think that one of the biggest challenges for researchers trying to engage in science communication is that their work is not valued or ‘counted’ within universities in terms of measuring the individual researcher’s success or the institution’s success in the university rankings.

Researchers need to let go of the jargon used in publications. I often wonder whether researchers go out of their way to find the most obscure word they can when writing papers. Why use an obscure word when an easy-to-understand word exists? Research by its nature focuses on the minutia, every detail is important and every caveat must be considered. Science communication is different, it’s about telling the story rather than reporting the results.

Not all researchers can be storytellers but the story of all research should be told, and so I think universities could support that by employing science communicators to help researchers to tell their story or to tell the story of their research for them. The important thing is that the science is shared in an accessible, fun and entertaining way.

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