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An Optimistic Outlook for Brain Health

The end-of-the-year holidays have such a strong focus on the past. For me, they’ve always been about memories. I am like the farmer in Robert Frost’s poem “After Apple-Picking” who says:

      There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

Even the darkness of these days, when the sun sets so early, makes me think of all the years behind me. I hold their memories in my hand, like those apples—and in my heart—for a bit before setting them down gently. Even if your past is filled with joy, time by its very nature involves loss.

We cherish the memories of the past year, and of our past lives, and then it is time to set them down and look to the future. So it is fitting and right that the holidays end with the beginning of a new year. Especially after the great troubles of 2020, it’s a relief to close the old calendar and open a fresh new one.

But isn’t it surprising that the new year begins right in the middle of winter instead of in the spring? In a way, it would make more sense if we started celebrating new beginnings when nature was actually starting anew. Wouldn’t it be easier to feel a sense of new hope if we were actually watching sprouts emerge from the dirt and buds open on the trees?

Instead, the new year is more about what we know is coming than about what we can see now. We know that we have turned an astronomical corner. We can read charts and learn that the sun is now rising four minutes earlier every day and that the northern hemisphere has stopped tilting farther and farther away from the sun and is now beginning to tilt a bit toward the sun. But this is not something we can take in with our senses. It’s too incremental, too technical, to notice.

...the most exciting developments in health tech are in the area of brain health.

But this too is fitting, because hope is, after all, about the future. It’s not about the good we see now, but about the good we know is coming. That’s why we make resolutions for the new year: our focus has shifted from cherishing memories to cherishing what’s ahead. At the end of the year, we touch our memories and hold them for a moment, like Robert Frost’s apples. But the beginning of the new year is about optimism. What we now hold in our hearts is not memories of the past, but hope for the future.

This year, we have so many future hopes to cherish! First, we are expecting a vaccine that will release us from the fear and isolation of this brutal pandemic. Like the lengthening day, this is a hope that will dawn slowly and gradually, beginning with those most at risk—our frontline health care workers and those who are most vulnerable to the virus.

The other great cause for optimism that’s on my mind—one that’s still the kind of hope you can calculate more than the kind of hope you can see—is the recent advances in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment (the past, present, and future) of Alzheimer’s disease. Along with developing new early diagnostic techniques, including a blood test, researchers are taking a second look at a new monoclonal antibody, aducanumab, finding new hope in the data collected so far.

Most surprising and exciting—and a great cause for optimism—are the huge strides taken by researchers studying the effect of lights that flicker at 40 Hz. on boosting memory capacity. Research began with observations of the effects of these lights on the brains of mice and quickly followed by unveiling the mechanism behind the effect: the recruitment of special cells that clear away the toxic buildup in the brain that causes dementia. Now the study has already entered into the clinical trial stage.

It is especially moving to me that this newly dawning hope is an actual, literal light. This new year more than ever, let’s welcome and cherish this new light of optimism for the future.