Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, Center for BrainHealth

Osmosis Team
Aug 15, 2014

Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman is the founder of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. Her research focuses on how to expand the creative ability of the brain. Dr. Chapman has spent her career gaining a greater understanding of the brain and we were fortunate to speak with her about how this applies to both learning and medical education.

How did you decided on a career in science?

I’ve always loved to learn and have been curious all my life. There were two things, however, hat strongly influenced me when I was young - the emergence of computers and the first humans landing on the moon. I loved math (it was the first major I pursued) and fell in love with the language of computer programming. Secondly, space exploration was all anyone could talk about as I was pursuing my education. As a country, we were pooling together top talent, the greatest minds, and vast resources toward winning the race for the first person to land on the moon. It was thrilling and filled with the unexpected. The prospect of turning the impossible into reality spurred my fascination with working on big problems that made a difference in people’s lives.

What made you specialize in cognitive neuroscience?

In college, I was introduced to a clinic that specialized in brain and communication problems. I met a set of 5-year-old twins who had developed their own unique language, called idioglossia, despite English being the only language they’d been exposed to. I was fascinated by the brain’s capability to create it’s own language before learning the native tongue and immediately switched degree programs from math to communication sciences.I received my master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and was afforded the opportunity to work with many individuals that furthered my fascination with the complexities of the human mind. One in particular was an 11-year-old with severe autism. He couldn’t make sense of auditory language nor speak any understandable words. He did however, have a perfect memory for anything I showed him. He learned sign language after seeing signs one time and could fix anything mechanical. I knew then we had to measure the brain’s cognitive performance, as verbal and non-verbal measurements were inadequate and far behind. After receiving my PhD in cognitive neuroscience, my deep desire was, and continues to be,to engage in research to better understand and improve cognitive brain performance across the life span.

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What inspired you to found the Center for BrainHealth?

I had witnessed too many patients who were told over and over again the limitations of their inherent brain capacity; professionals telling them they would never achieve certain goals resulting from age, injury, disease, or socioeconomic status. So much of clinical care and treatment focuses on what is wrong with the brain. Very little attention is given to see how it can be enhanced to improve functionality. After I completed my doctoral work, I developed measures and training to test whether individuals could improve their cognitive abilities. I saw these individuals dispute the science I was learning first hand, and I wanted to do more than publish papers revealing discoveries that couldn’t be implemented into clinical practice for another 30 years. I wanted to start a Center where every scientist was focused on, and dedicated to, improving cognitive brain health in people’s lives, today. Brain health is a cause that touches every single life, just like heart health. For this reason, I am launching the translational arm of the Center for BrainHealth called the Brain Performance Institute. Once we have proven trials to enhance brain health, they will be immediately available to individuals across the lifespan in health, injury, and disease.

As the founder of the Center for BrainHealth, how do you think that the greater understanding of how the brain works and learns is affecting medical education?

We are learning more and more about the brain every year. In my opinion, it is the most unexplored frontier of science. Research discoveries and technological advances are making us increasingly aware of the importance of keeping our brain in good operating function throughout the life span but more efforts need to be directed toward implementing cognitive

neuroscience discoveries in preventative practices. The public at-large is without scientifically validated knowledge about how to keep their brains fit. Medical education curricula, their professors, and cognitive neuroscientists need to work side by side to advance cognitive brain health in the next generation of doctors and their patients to fill the gap between research and clinical practice.

What do you think is the biggest problem with medical education today?

There are definite opportunities for improvement in medical education. The first is in advancing the current limited knowledge of cognitive neuroscience discoveries related to the brain’s capacity to be strengthened and repaired in all medical fields. Our brain changes every day by how we use or abuse it. Adopting healthy brain habits will build stronger more resilient cognitive performance and keep pace with medicine’s achievement of our extended lifespan. The second is in the development of training for providers. Medical practitioners play a pivotal role in advancing our brain span and need to incentivize their patients to care for the single greatest organ in the body. Without brain health, we do not have health.