How the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the Aspen Brain Institute
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Oct. 27 A Survey of the Healing Potential of Psychadelics with Dr. Rachel Yehuda
BRAIN HEALTH COOKING SERIES
Hosted by Annie Fenn, each session will feature a guest chef demo and commentary from brain health scientists. Registrants will be provided recipes prior to each session to cook along.
Nov. 10 Nutritional psychiatrist Drew Ramsay, founder of Brain Food Clinic
Nov. 17 Neuroscientist Lisa Mosconi, author of “Brain Food”
Dec. 1 Ayesha and Dean Sherzai, co-authors of “The Alzheimer’s Solution”
Dec. 8 Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachussetts General Hospital
Nearing its 10th anniversary last year, the Aspen Brain Institute’s leaders started strategizing how they might do things differently. The nonprofit, founded by brain health advocate Glenda Greenwald, had been convening experts here and gathering the latest in practical neurology research for a decade.
But Greenwald wanted to find ways to lead people around the world to brain-healthy practices that might prevent brain disease and dementia, to break their work out of its Aspen bubble.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in the springtime and lockdowns began across the U.S. and the world, it provided an unlikely springboard for the Brain Institute’s programs, which quickly went virtual and global and has sustained an audience now for more than six months.
For years, the Brain Institute had been hosting one big annual event in an Aspen ballroom. By this fall, the Brain Institute’s virtual Expert Series had 12,000 subscribers hailing from 103 countries and 47 states.
“It was pretty phenomenal,” Greenwald recalled recently.
The annual Aspen BrainLab event would convene brain experts in the ballroom at the Hotel Jerome or the St. Regis Resort for a crowd of about 300. With pass prices beginning at $490, it was an exclusive event that served as both the Brain Institute’s primary fundraiser and its main public event. As a fundraiser it was successful. But in terms of reaching the public, it was non-starter only serving a sliver of 1-percenters.
The pandemic has flipped the Brain Institute’s event model on its head. Now the nonprofit gives everything away for free and reaches a diverse global audience.
“We thought we’d be suffering, but the only suffering was that we had no way to raise funds,” Greenwald said.
Now in her 80s, Greenwald came out of retirement in 2010 to start the Aspen Brain Institute. Her work in health advocacy extends back to 1970, when she founded the Human Intelligence International Newsletter, a clearinghouse for the latest in neuroscience news. The Brain Institute began hosting the Aspen BrainLab in 2013.
Greenwald and her board of directors rethought the organization’s mission in 2019. They hired a new “director of growth,” Sara Drake, from the private sector to strategize how to get their work to the world from Aspen. (Drake was among five newly contracted staffers for an organization that had previously operated with volunteer leadership on about a $150,000 annual budget.)
“I realized we had to reach a larger audience because we had all this wonderful science-based information, but it wasn’t going very far,” Greenwald recalled. “So our mission became to democratize access to the best science-based information on brain health.”
As 2020 began, they were searching for a mechanism that might serve as a megaphone to help people — across geographical and socio-economic boundaries — to learn about preventative care for brain health.
“We were looking for a global platform,” Greenwald said.
Fate delivered it. In March, like just about every other event here and beyond, the Brain Lab canceled its summer convening. But Greenwald and Drake quickly put together an eight-week lineup of speakers for free Zoom-based virtual events. Launching in early April, they were among the first Aspen area organizations to get into online programming.
“The free Zoom series fell in our laps and pulled us toward our new mission in a greater way than we ever could have expected,” Greenwald said.
Added Drake: “I hate to say it, but it was serendipitous in that it forced us to open up these new information gateways and to get everyone on Zoom. … This couldn’t have happened without us experiencing COVID and being forced to learn and grow and pivot.”
The Expert Series included talks by doctors and medical experts like Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Dean Ornish, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher, with sessions like “Breath as Medicine for Brain Health” and “Transcendental Meditation and the Brain” with Bob Roth.
The multiple crises of 2020 have sent many people looking for free wellness resources and ways to cope with anxiety and mental and emotional trauma — to keep from losing their minds in an insane time. The easy access to Expert Series talks on a broad range of brain health topics met that acute need.
The average age of BrainLab participants had been over 60 before 2020, Drake noted. Since March, she said, the majority of the audience is between 25 and 50.
“It’s not just about dementia and Alzheimer’s,” Drake said. “Everybody is now beginning to think about their brains the same way we think about our bodies.”
Online events and virtual happy hours fell off the cultural schedule en masse this summer, as people got outside or just got tired of staring at screens. But the Brain Institute’s series continued to thrive into the fall.
It is now wrapping up its Expert Series 2.0, the second run of brain experts the nonprofit has virtually hosted. This week, neuroscientist Preston Estep discussed his work on an open-source vaccine for COVID-19, and next week Rachel Yehuda, a specialist in traumatic stress studies, will discuss the latest on using psychedelics as healing medicine.
The fall talks have included topics like traumatic brain injuries in sports, Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment, the effect of coronavirus on long-term brain health and a discussion with Goldie Hawn — the actress, part-time Aspenite and founder of the education nonprofit Goldie Hawn Foundation — with Yale University psychiatry professor Bruce Wexler and BrainFutures’ chief strategy officer Holly McCormack on neuroscience and school curricula.
In November, the five-part “Brain-Healthy Cooking Series” launches with pairings of brain health scientists and chefs for free cooking demos and discussions.
While the programs have moved online and the Brain Institute’s base of participants is now far beyond the Roaring Fork Valley, its work is still very much based in Aspen.
In 2021 or beyond — depending on the status of the pandemic — the Brain Institute hopes to put programs on the ground here by teaming with local organizations. That might include partnering with Aspen area restaurants to put brain-healthy items on local menus marked with a brain icon (highlighting brain foods like vegan or gluten free options might be) or using the Hawn Foundation’s MindUp curriculum in some local schools, or integrating brain health programs at Aspen Valley Hospital.
“We want to bring all of these programs to Aspen to see if we can create a model for a ‘Brain-Health Community,’” Greenwald said. “We are doing both global and local.”