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Tech to proactively support your Brain Health

June 26, 2024
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Rachel Slattery creates and nourishes communities of curious minds around frontier tech and better ways of working.

How is your brain? Is it healthy? Do you think about how best to look after it? So many of us only see brain health through the prism of disease or injury rather than how best to optimise our brain’s performance. During my deep dive into Ageing, I have become a fan of Dr Sandi Bond Chapman who is dedicated to exploring the limitless potential of the human mind. As the Founder of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, Dr Chapman champions a profound truth: Without brain health, there is no health.

The cost of neglecting our brain health is staggering. Brain disorders, including mental illnesses and neurological conditions, contribute to over 15% of global health-related disabilities, imposing substantial economic burdens. A 2020 Productivity Commission report estimating the cost of mental illness and suicide in Australia is close to $180 billion per year and the cost of dementia is sky-rocketing. Psychological health in workplaces is a growing focus for Safe Work Australia, which reported that mental health conditions accounted for 9% of all serious workers’ compensation claims, a 36.9% increase since 2017-18.

And what exactly is brain health? Well, it is everything! It is all those things we often discuss in silos, such as IQ, EQ and mental health. Brain health encompasses all that we think about the brain – and all that our brains think – under one umbrella. A global movement has begun for societies to accumulate Brain Capital. By investing in our collective brains we can reorient the economy to build a smarter, healthier, more equitable tomorrow.

Without brain health, there is no health.

Tech to promote brain health

Technology is helping us discover more about the brain as recently mentioned in the Silver Futures blog, Australia’s Neurotech Future. On the Silver Futures Agetech Map you can find a growing number of Australian companies that help us improve our brain health as we age by enabling better sleep, connection, nutrition, movement and hearing. Tech is also key to measuring, setting, and achieving personal brain health goals at any age. Multiple brain training websites and apps offer a virtual brain trust for us to tap into at will.

Here in Australia, the Remarkable Accelerator has supported FocusBear, a routine-building app, and MemoRehab, which helps build memory habits. Contain Your Brain is an app that helps you worry less and improve your well-being and productivity. A growing ecosystem of mental health-focused startups and organisations in Australia are leveraging technology to improve access, support, and outcomes for cognitive health such as Kinder World with games that can calm us; Sonder and Pioneera serving employee well-being, Reasonit tackling depression and Flintworks helping those affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Australia’s digital mental health pioneers

When mental health challenges hit, one-on-one professional therapy simply isn’t an option for many. Back in 2012, Smiling Mind used technology to become Australia’s go-to digital solution to make mental-health support accessible for all, particularly kids. Founded by Jane Martino and James Tutton, Smiling Mind was supported by the Gandel Foundation from the get-go and reports 8.6 million downloads of its app globally, reaching an estimated 12.8 million young people around the world. More than 15 years ago, Professors Helen Christensen and Kathleen Griffiths from the Australian National University developed the online cognitive behaviour therapy training program MoodGym. It was spun out from ANU and acquired by Canada’s Dialogue groups in 2021, but thanks to funding from the Australian government, it remains free for Australians to use.

Investment in mental health tech

In 2020 global venture capital investment into mental health neared US$1 billion. US company Lyra Health was founded in 2015 and delivers mental health in the workplace and now has a valuation in the billions. Here in Australia, investors have shown some interest in investing directly in mental health tech. For instance, Mindset Health raised $17.8 million for its hypnotherapy apps from King River Capital, Tattarang’s Tenmile, Perennial Partners, and impact investors Giant Leap and Alberts. Mental health makes sense as an impact venture, as seen by Giant Leap and family offices such as The Snow Foundation investing in a number of startups focussing on brain health. The Goodman Foundation is the generous benefactor behind The Black Dog Institute’s recent release of the app ClearlyMe®, a self-directed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program tailored to teens. And Orygen, which focuses on young people’s mental health, has developed Mello targeting stuck thinking with the backing of the Telstra Foundation and William Buckland Foundation and MOST for mental health support funded by various state governments and the Telstra Foundation.

Investing in our brains is investing in our future

But there is still a long way to go, particularly regarding social equity. We all need to work on brain health proactively throughout our lives, and many of us also need to manage conditions and disorders. The Australian Centre for Social Innovation is doing some impressive work in this area, conceding that despite inspiring pockets of innovation in the mental health system, “the challenge now is to do this at scale and with pace.”

While we need to address underinvestment and fragmentation to meet our mental health needs, a recent paper, “The influence of economic policies on social environments and mental health,” argues that things will not change until we deal with the root causes of mental health. Economic structures and policies are intertwined with the mental health of populations. Growing Australia’s brain capital requires a concerted whole-system approach to create the environments for our brains to thrive, across our schools, our workplaces and our communities. One of the paper’s authors, Dr Harris Eyre states, “By advocating for systemic investment, we’re moving beyond supporting individual mental health initiatives; we’re championing an approach that embeds mental wealth into the very core of our economic and social systems.”

What if we made our brains matter most? By proactively prioritising brain health and brain skills, Australia could unleash collaborative investments and intersectoral efforts to ignite action to meet our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. Brain Health diplomacy can continue to build the bridges needed for national and global impact.

Innovation diplomacy includes establishing academic partnerships with industry, promoting open innovation and building global value chains. Derived from the Nesta Innovation Policy Toolkit, this Brain Health Diplomacy framework seeks to amplify the positive impact of emerging technologies while acknowledging and addressing the potential risks associated with digital platforms. It recognises that advancements in mental health technology can significantly impact political, ethical, cultural, and economic landscapes.

Hats off to all the game changers, innovators, and backers now providing us with mental health support. But imagine what value could be realised if we had a national north star for healthy and strong brains? Imagine an Australia where we placed top value on each and every brain – and invested in them accordingly? The opportunity is ours to grasp by finding ways to collectively build our brain capital. Ensuring our nation’s brains are as healthy, well, and productive as they can be whatever our age or circumstance will deliver precious dividends for our organisations, governments, communities – and ourselves.

Further Reading

Steven Duke is writing The Hemingway Report weekly for mental health innovators.

The University of Sydney Brain and Mind Centre’s Mental Wealth Initiative pursues an ‘asset approach’ to ensuring Australia’s future mental wealth by upgrading cognitive and emotional wellbeing through a broad range of interventions.

The Centre for Policy Development’s Wellbeing Government Initiative is all about redefining progress to prioritise people and planet.

Dr Chapman’s Center for Brain Health has created the BrainHealth Index. You can join the BrainHealth® Project to measure and track your own brain fitness. It takes some time, but it is free and gives you an interesting snapshot and access to training. Plus you join tens of thousands of people from 63 countries (and counting) helping with research efforts.

Plans are underway to convene the first Australian Brain Capital Summit on Wednesday November 27, 2024, in Melbourne.