April 7, 2020
Digital Journal
Tim Sandle

Keeping the brain active during the coronavirus lockdown is essential for people, in terms of avoiding cognitive decline and helping to offset mental health issues, as Dr. Henry Mahncke explains.

To understand the importance of brain health during the measures taken during the coronavirus pandemic, Digital Journal interviewed Dr. Henry Mahncke, who discovered lifelong brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to change and improve at any age).

Dr. Mahncke is a leading research scientist on harnessing plasticity, and he serves as CEO of Posit Science, which makes the BrainHQ brain-training app.

Digital Journal: How does the practice of social distancing affect brain health?

Dr. Henry Mahncke: I study the brain’s performance as an organ, and we know brain health is sustained by cognitive stimulation – ongoing learning and experience. Social engagement is one of the best forms of cognitive stimulation — interacting with others involves attention, is often filled with new learning and surprises, and typically is quite rewarding. Those types of experiences flood the brain with chemicals that improve the brain’s ability to make positive changes in its health, both at a systemic and cellular level.

When we stay at home and isolate ourselves, we deprive our brains of that kind of stimulation, and our cognitive health can suffer — just as how, if we stay inside and don’t exercise, our physical health can suffer.

It’s easy when staying at home to fall into a rut —every day, pretty much the same. That kind of routine is the enemy of brain health — because the brain is no longer required to learn, adapt, and change.

DJ: What can we do to keep our brains healthy?

Mahncke: What we call “social distancing” is often a combination of physical distancing (which reduces social interaction) and being house-bound (which reduces stimulation and learning).

We can do something about each of those.

First, social interaction. One thing we can do is interact — in a positive way — with those around us (if you’re not home alone), and those you may interact with — at an appropriate distance — when you go out for permitted activities. Many people are using this unusual time to better connect virtually with family and friends by phone or internet. We instinctively know socialization is good for us. You can make virtual interaction even better by paying careful attention to the person you are speaking with and asking questions of each other to build mental images of your situations. Mental imagery activates the brain in very much the same way as actually being somewhere.

Second, new learning. This needs to be more than familiar activities you’ve enjoyed for years – it needs to be something new you are learning to do. This might be the time to start using an app to learn a new language, or to practice a new piece on the piano, or to take up juggling. It’s also a time when people are taking on home projects, which are demanding but also rewarding — especially when you improve a space where you are currently spending so much time.

Look for activities that are attentionally challenging, are personally rewarding when you improve, and that can keep providing some new challenge.

My work focuses on how to apply these principles of brain change through software-based brain-training exercises. Over the past two decades, I’ve worked with a global team to build BrainHQ, which is a set of brain exercises that give the brain a workout in a manner carefully designed by brain scientists — and documented in over 100 studies — to improve cognitive performance and brain health, as well as physical performance and mood.

Looking at recent data, we see an uptick in BrainHQ usage, which I attribute to people making time right now for wellness activities that they can do at home.

DJ: Does our healthcare system need to adjust to doing more for brain health?

Mahncke: Yes. It’s surprising that most wellness benefits offered by health plans are focused on physical health — and very few on brain health. Yet, we know the brain controls the body.

Based on a huge amount of research since the 1990s, we now know a tremendous amount about how to improve brain performance and health. The good news is that even as this pandemic rages on, we are seeing increased interest in this topic from health plans.

DJ: What are health plans doing about brain health?

Mahncke: Over the past two years, we’ve worked with leading Medicare Advantage plans to offer BrainHQ as a benefit to millions of members. Right now, we are in discussions with not only Medicare Advantage plans (who can cover such benefits with government dollars), but also with MedSupp and commercial plans (who pay for these benefits from operating funds).

While better health outcomes and lower healthcare costs were the focus of discussions in January, the focus now is on how you can get this benefit without leaving your house. Most wellness benefits – say, a gym benefit – require going somewhere. We are in a new world where plans are looking for new ways to deliver wellness at home — especially to vulnerable people who may be advised to continue to shelter in place.

I find the plans we talk with are being quite proactive about how the world is changing.