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Good sleep and good friends are good for your brain. UT Dallas’ new project will prove it

A person at the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth explores the inside of a brain scan through VR technology, with a colorful computer screen with a brain model.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
A person at the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth explores the inside of a brain scan through VR technology. It's part of the center's work to make brain health and improved cognition part of people's daily lives.

A new project from the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas is encouraging people to think about brain health before something goes wrong.

The Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas unveiled a revolutionary imaging center to measure healthy brain markers. The Sammons BrainHealth Imaging Center will use MRI to map people’s brain health over time and identify what neural markers indicate brain improvement.

Chief Director of the Center for BrainHealth Sandi Chapman said it’s all part of a project called the BrainHealth Index. It’s an online telehealth-like tool that helps people be proactive about healthy brains habits.

“Just like your muscles are stronger and you feel more fit, or your cholesterol’s down, what if we could have similar metrics for the brain getting stronger?” Chapman said.

The BrainHealth Index measures factors like social support, cognition, and mood through an online portal. The program then offers coaching and tips while tracking brain health every six months. Instead of measuring things like memory decline and dementia, Chapman said the center is focused on giving people a baseline health assessment and manageable, daily ways to improve brain function.

A person stands in front of slides that discuss three areas of brain health: clarity, emotional balance, and connectedness.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
"For the first time, we'll actually be able to image the brain, see what a 40 year-old brain looks like, [and] how we can maintain that 40 year-old brain," said BrainHealth Project co-leader Dr. Geoffrey Ling on the center's new imaging suite. "It's not only just some of these biometrics, but also actually visually see the impact on the brain itself and the brain networks."

Small changes like sleep and social connection can improve brain health

Dr. Geoffrey Ling works with the center and is also a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins University. He said small changes can make all the difference.

“The fact of the matter is, is we know there are interventions that are important,” Ling said. “A lot of those interventions are things that everybody can do. It is not a pill, it’s not surgery, it’s not some magic elixir. If we chose to do things to preserve the health of our brain, we can, and it should be based on solid science.”

He encourages people to start small: get more sleep, eliminate multi-tasking, and build social connections.

“Every person that we know, their brain is what makes them who they are,” Ling said. “And to lose that is to basically mean they’ve lost who they are.”

A person stands in front of a slide with a large cartoon toothbrush, reading," What if we waited until we were 65 to start brushing our teeth?"
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
"Your brain is actually wired to deal with massive change, if you'll just take some small steps to embrace it," said Sandi Chapman, chief director for the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas.

Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is a co-chair of the project and said everyone should be thinking about their brain health, not just older adults.

“If we don’t address some of the real challenges—dementia, Alzheimer’s being two of those—then we’re going to have a societal cost that we’re not gonna be able to manage,” he said.

Chapman hopes tools like the BrainHealth Index become as commonplace as smart devices tracking fitness and nutrition.

“We want people to really become empowered to take agency in changing their brain,” she said. “It’s what’s really going to help us flourish in life, our brain skills.”

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.