New UT-Dallas institute to be at forefront of training the brain

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sandra Bond Chapman pictures a day when people will check their brain health as routinely as they monitor their cholesterol.

That day may come sooner in North Texas than anywhere else.

On Wednesday, Chapman, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, and her colleagues will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the Brain Performance Institute. Behind its wraparound glass facade, meant to evoke the brain’s frontal lobes, clinicians will test patients’ cognitive skills and design programs to boost their mental agility.

“We think about cancer, we think about heart disease, but most people don’t realize if they’re brain healthy or not,” said Chapman, founder and chief director of UTD’s Center for BrainHealth.

The Brain Performance Institute, which is scheduled to open in the spring of 2017, will translate the center’s research into programs for patients.

Staffers have raised $55 million out of $82 million for the institute so far. Major donors include Lyda Hill; Debbie and John Tolleson of Tolleson Wealth Management; the Sarah and Ross Perot Jr. Foundation and the Hamon Charitable Foundation.

In the last several years, scientists have gained a new appreciation for the brain’s ability to continually renew itself. Conventional wisdom once dictated that humans are born with a fixed set of nerve cells, or neurons, that gradually die out as we age. In fact, the brain never stops making new neurons.

“In principle, there isn’t an age at which you can no longer learn new things,” said Bradley Postle, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is not involved with the institute.

Normal declines in memory and cognition in aging result not only from dying nerve cells but also from decreased blood flow in the brain and weaker connections among brain regions.

Studies show that certain types of training can reverse these trends and increase blood flow and strengthen connections between neurons. Faced with an aging population, scientists are experimenting with ways to keep the mind active throughout life.

“If we could come to a real understanding of what kinds of interventions would be effective at protecting our neurological health as we got older, that would have really profound consequences for public health,” Postle said.

TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY

Chapman first grew interested in the brain by working not with the elderly but with the young. She has been involved in one of the longest-running studies of pediatric traumatic brain injury, led by Harvey Levin of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Chapman noticed that, in some children, brain development unexpectedly slowed more than one year after their initial injury, following a period of recovery. She dubbed the phenomenon “neurocognitive stall.”

She then observed that one of the deficits she saw in her brain-injured patients was the same as one she was seeing in adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and in seniors with early Alzheimer’s symptoms. They were unable to “take in a lot of information, synthesize it and grasp the essence of it ...,” she said.

She came up with a set of strategies to help her young patients overcome that hurdle.

As she developed the program, she called it SMART, or Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training.

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