Our brains are arguably our biggest assets as individuals and communities. However, standards of care and access to solutions for brain challenges are woefully inadequate. Our environment can be harmful to our brains, such as through air pollution and nano-plastics in our food and water, as well as trauma and negative psychological effects from social media. Moreover, the neuroscience innovation market to “fix” these issues is often riddled with perverse incentives. We need a new model to link brain-based innovation with economics—a disciplined approach, methodology, and set of services for accelerating responsible innovation. We need a Brain Capital Foundry.
As a society, we clearly have many brain challenges.1 These span from mental health to neurological and substance use disorders. Current prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment solutions are inadequate and often inaccessible, being out of reach for millions. Further, social media platforms can amplify anxiety and drive disinformation-driven radicalization and confusion. Innovative solutions and systems can face serious obstacles when placed in opposition with at times more efficient short-term approaches that often are rewarded by capital markets (eg, short-term profit motivations of venture capitalists and their limited partners).
Brain challenges are currently seen as externalities to the economy.2 Other pseudo-externalities include viruses and climate change. However, we now appreciate that viruses and climate extremes can and will impact our economy. Brain challenges reduce our brain performance and disrupt societal flourishing, ranging from trillions of dollars in lost productivity to despair and discord within communities.3 This is why we developed Brain Capital, a novel economic measure that integrates brain health and brain skills.2 We seek to place Brain Capital at the center of economic models and solutions in the current brain economy.4
We are engaging with the economics of new solutions for brain disorders.5 We previously wrote that conventional venture capital models, led by financiers, can be inimical to the brain innovation market.5Theme-based funds, venture studios, or related integration may not adequately mitigate the financial incentives driven by the expectations of both limited partners and fund managers to force-feed unicorns with money to either 1) grow irresponsible brain health solution businesses for more pure profit motives or 2) grow businesses that can damage brain health. The ultimate mission and focus of each of these investors is to maximize the exit price for these companies, thereby incentivizing short- and medium-term financial results versus longer-term societal brain health. The behavior of company leadership and associated markets feeds off those drivers. Behaviors up and down the supply and demand chain can continuously reinforce these financially successful companies.
Most social media platforms are designed to hijack cognitive processes and evoke emotional responses to attract, capture, and retain their users’ attention. Social neuroscientists have modelled these processes to show how the brain handles social information and to explain how basic reward circuits in the brain use this information to influence decision-making.6 The real-time data collected and used by social media algorithms means that platforms are constantly fine-tuning their methods and content to get the most possible user attention and consequent advertising returns. Competition for users’ time is heating up. The attention economy is not just about grabbing advertising dollars; these platforms are competing to hijack basic biological functions.
The CEO of Netflix joked in 2017 that they are not competing against other platforms—their real competition is “sleep.”7 Although this was a quip at an industry conference, it needs to be taken seriously; it is true that individuals in developed countries are indeed sleeping less, and this is associated with worse mental health. If attention economies are focusing on holding onto users’ attention at the expense of basic biological and social behaviors that contribute to health and well-being, the long-term consequences will be profoundly damaging.
We believe a wholesale brain capital-based economic reengineering is needed. We must attack this issue from convergent perspectives. To this end, we suggest a Brain Capital Foundry, which specifically aims to create and integrate neuroscience advances, policy, diplomacy, economic theories, responsible innovation, as well as the development and deployment of financial instruments. This foundry creates a disciplined approach, methodology, and set of services for accelerating innovation. A graphical overview of this structure is listed in the Figure. There are also several key examples of Brain Capital Foundry structures (Table).
We urgently need a new economic model for a brain economy that prioritizes one of our most important societal assets: our brains. Careful work is required to knit together neuroscience-inspired innovations, policy, diplomacy, economics, responsible innovation, and finance. We hope this blueprint is helpful to stimulate further refinement and action.
Ms Smith is an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Trinity College Dublin; a Thiel Fellow at Stanford University; and a Steering Committee member for the OECD Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative (NIPI, in collaboration with PRODEO Institute and supported by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute [“The Meadows Institute”]). Dr Dawson is an assistant professor in neurology at Oregon Health and Science University. He is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at GBHI. Dr Berk is director of IMPACT, the Institute for Mental Health and Physical Health and Clinical Translation at Deakin University. He is an honorary professorial fellow with The Florey Institute for Neuroscience and Mental Health, ORYGEN Youth Health, The University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University. Mr Véron is a general partner at Newfund, a cross-Atlantic early-stage firm with investments in health, mental health, edtech, and foodtech. Newfund partners with Fondation Fondamental for the launch of Heka, the first of a new generation of VC funds focused on mental health. Mr Hackett is cofounder of The Hackett Center for Mental Health Policy and former chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Dr Wong is the John S Dunn Sr. Presidential Distinguished Chair, founding chair of Systems Medicine and Bioengineering Department, director of T.T. & W.F. Chao Center for BRAIN, and associate director of Houston Methodist Cancer Center, Houston Methodist. He is a professor of radiology, neuroscience, pathology, and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr Hynes is head of the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit, senior advisor to the OECD Secretary General, and co-lead of OECD NIPI. Dr Keller is CEO and president of The Meadows Institute. Dr Fu is a specialist in frontier technologies, investing, and philanthropy strategy. She is a commissioner for the California 100 Initiative. Dr Chen is a general partner at IOVC, where she focuses on early-stage venture investments in Silicon Valley with a focus on future of work and enterprise/SaaS. She is also on the faculty at UC Berkeley and Singularity University, and is appointed by California Governor Gavin Newson to serve as 1 of 13 voting members on California’s Mental Health Commission (as the first Asian-American commissioner), which includes overseeing ~$2.6 billion annually in state budget and advising the governor and the legislature on mental health policy. Dr Eyre is co-lead of the OECD NIPI, founding steering committee member of Brain Health Nexus of Cohen Veterans Bioscience, strategic advisor to Heka, member of the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative Champion’s Cabinet, advisor to the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute, senior fellow with The Meadows Institute, instructor with GBHI, and adjunct with IMPACT at Deakin University, the Baylor College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston.
1. Eyre HA, Graham C. Combatting America’s crisis of despair by investing in brains. Brookings. January 3, 2022. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2022/01/03/combatting-americas-crisis-of-despair-by-investing-in-brains/
2. Smith E, Ali D, Wilkerson B, et al. A brain capital grand strategy: toward economic reimagination. Molecular Psychiatry. 2020;26(1):3-22.
3. Eyre HA, Sinha A, Smith E, et al. The brain economy. RSA Journal. 2020;166(3):44-47.
4. Eyre HA, Ayadi R, Ellsworth W, et al. Building brain capital. Neuron. 2021;109(9):1430-1432.
5. Smith E, Heinemeyer M, Eyre HA. Preventing marketing failure in brain health: moving toward fixes in investment, operations, and governance. STAT. November 9, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.statnews.com/2021/11/09/preventing-market-failure-in-brain-health-moving-toward-fixes-in-investment-operations-and-governance/
6. Banisch S, Gaisbauer F, Olbrich E. How social feedback processing in the brain shapes collective opinion processes in the era of social media. arXiv Vanity. 2020. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.arxiv-vanity.com/papers/2003.08154/
7. Bradley L. Netflix’s biggest competition? basically everything besides TV, says Netflix. Vanity Fair. January 18, 2019. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/01/netflix-competition-disney-hulu-fortnite
8. Healthcare system preparedness. Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative. 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.davosalzheimerscollaborative.org/healthcare-system-preparedness
9. Dawson WD, Graham C, Smith E, et al. Build brains better: a proposal for a White House Brain Capital Council to accelerate post-COVID recovery and resilience. Brookings. December 22, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/research/build-brains-better-a-proposal-for-a-white-house-brain-capital-council-to-accelerate-post-covid-recovery-and-resilience/
10. Spurring multi-disciplinary research across three institutions to treat eurological and psychiatric diseases. Weill Neurohub. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.weillneurohub.org
11. New voices. new science. new finance.Healthy Brains Global Initiative. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.hbgi.org
12. Neuroscience-inspired policy initiative. OECD. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.oecd.org/naec/brain-capital/
13. Eyre HA, Berk M, Lavretsky H, et al. Convergence Mental Health: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Innovation. Oxford University Press; 2021.
14. Smith E, Kawaguchi N, Bond Chapman S, et al. Closing the brain health gap: addressing women’s inequalities. Oxford University Press Blog. August 21, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://blog.oup.com/2021/08/closing-the-brain-health-gap-addressing-womens-inequalities/