Why brains are top of the agenda at Davos this year

Most of us understand the need to take care of our physical health but far fewer of us have the same approach to our brains

This week I was enjoying an extraordinary view of snow-capped Swiss Alps on the train to Davos when I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between two British people sitting nearby. They were not talking about Brexit, as one might have expected, given the current crisis in their country.

Instead, they were discussing the participation of Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, in a session on mental health at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

If you thought that world leaders in politics and business attending Davos were only interested in economics, finance and geopolitics, think again. This year mental health is set to be one of the most discussed topics at the WEF conference.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 300 million individuals across the world are currently suffering from some form of depression, with many of them also exhibiting symptoms of anxiety. The WHO also indicates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

Tomorrow I will be attending a lunch, organised by the US healthcare firm Kaiser Permanente each year in Davos, to promote multi-stakeholder efforts on mental health. Its focus this year will be mental health inequities, a topic that the company’s chairman and chief executive Bernard Tyson addressed earlier this week in an interesting article.

In the column, he called for a reduction in not only the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace but also in mental health inequity, which is frequently ignored. As he wrote: “This is often a problem in lower-income communities, where populations may be at greater risk of pathology and often face the highest obstacles to getting care, in part owing to a lack of the specialised resources available in wealthier areas.”

I will also be attending an event organised by the pharmaceutical firm Johnson and Johnson, whose chief science officer Paul Stoffels suggests prioritising reducing the time, cost and risk of developing and evaluating treatmentsNew public-private partnerships on brain sciences to harness big data and real-world evidence must also be developed, he says.


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This particular aspect is of great interest during Davos. I will be speaking in five sessions about our new solutions leveraging neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence to better measure stress, distraction and anxiety in the workplace and therefore offer evidence-based solutions to improve wellness, safety and productivity at work.

Finally, in line with Mr Tyson and many other leaders in the healthcare sector, Mr Stoffels advocates changing the dialogue and the narrative around brain health – that is, the ability to memorise, learn, play and focus with a clear and active mind and exercising logic and good judgment.

Personally, I could not agree more. Talking positively about brain health, rather than mental health issues, is a very important first step to fighting stigma around it. Most of us understand the need to take care of our physical health but far fewer of us have the same approach to our brains. Brain health requires not only a lot of attention but also concrete action to keep our minds functioning and active.

But the healthcare sector alone will not make progress if other sectors are not actively involved.

With the potential for half of all professional tasks to be replaced by machines and automated software by 2025, as a WEF report last year suggested, the anxiety levels workers experience are bound to increase unless steps are taken to help them.

Political and industry leaders are now well aware of this and most welcome the support of WEF.

Since I previously led WEF’s global strategy in health and healthcare, perhaps I’m biased. But the facts are there for all to see. The forum has a strong track record of creating public partnerships in healthcare that have had significant impact. One of them is Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance backed by Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, which has contributed to the immunisation of nearly 700 million children and prevented an estimated 10 million deaths since its launch at Davos in 2000.

The involvement of WEF in brain health is therefore great news.

We are more than our brains, but failing to prioritise brain health has dramatic individual and societal consequences. It’s time for everyone to embrace what experts have been repeating for years: there is no health without brain health. That is why the brain matters more than ever in Davos.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ