A better understanding of social support can help keep people’s brains healthy longer, says Dr. Joel Salinas, a Mass General behavioral neurologist.

Taking on a challenge is often easier when you have someone to share it with. Studies have shown that recovering from an illness or trying to losing weight is more successful if you have a network of people who keep you engaged and encouraged. Now, researchers are trying to understand how that emotional support creates physical changes in your brain.

Joel Salinas, MD, MBA, MSc
Joel Salinas, MD, MBA, MSc

In this interview, Joel Salinas, MD, MBA, MSc, a Massachusetts General Hospital behavioral neurologist who focuses on brain health, talks about the impact social relationships have on reducing or preventing brain disease. His research is based at Mass General’s new Institute for Brain Health, which focuses on preventing brain disorders and preserving brain health.

Why is understanding the connection between social networks and brain health important?

While we often recommend people stay socially active as a way to prevent brain disease, we don’t know exactly how it works. For example, cigarette smokers tend to gather together. Does that mean the social network encourages that unhealthy behavior, or that they simply feel an affinity for each other?

There’s a lot we don’t know. If we can gather more consistent and comprehensive information from patients and combine that with better imaging tools that illuminate exactly how the brain is affected, we may be able to intervene at an earlier stage to delay or prevent brain disease and reduce the incidence of stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS and other age-related brain conditions.

What is the goal of your current study?

We are enrolling 30 patients in Mass General’s ALS Clinic as part of a pilot study. It includes an app that will generate lots of consistent and wide-ranging data. The information collected will help create a set of characteristics that can be matched to changes in day-to-day functioning. Once we see how the brain is affected by social interactions, we can look carefully at how the biology of the brain changes, either becoming more resistant to decline or doing a better job of repelling disease.

“The great opportunity for researchers today is finding ways to keep older people healthy longer, delaying or avoiding disability and dependence.”

Why is brain health research important now?

The great opportunity for researchers today is finding ways to keep older people healthy longer, delaying or avoiding disability and dependence. Now that we have better tracking tools and imaging equipment that allows us to get a better look inside the brain we can move forward with this research.

How did you find your way to this research?

As a fellow in the Mass General Department of Neurology, I was studying the recovery of stroke patients. The data showed that patients who had supportive social groups had reduced rates of depression. There was also evidence that those with a strong network of social support – family, friends and neighbors – had reduced rates of stroke and dementia. I saw this as an indicator of a trend and wanted to expand it to a larger population, to get a better sense, not only about what kinds of social networks and social supports are most effective, but also how they improve a person’s brain health.

Since individuals with strong social ties have healthier outcomes, does that mean loners are more likely to have brain disease?

Not necessarily. It depends on the person and their specific circumstances. But understanding exactly how social networks encourage or discourage certain behaviors can help us learn whether we can prescribe a specific activity, intervention, or therapy for a particular patient.

“The goal is to create tools an individual can use across his or her lifespan to preserve or improve brain health.”

The goal is to create tools an individual can use across his or her lifespan to preserve or improve brain health, in the same way that heart-healthy lifestyle choices have been shown to significantly reduce an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease.

How does working with the Institute for Brain Health support your research?

The Institute is unique in that it is a hub for three major populations that researchers don’t typically have access to: individuals with active brain disease who don’t want to use drugs; individuals who are at a high risk for brain disease because of age, heredity or other factors; and individuals who are not at high risk but are motivated to act early to keep their brains healthy.

Why does this research need philanthropic support?

The development of these tools represents a new area of research. These pilot studies require funding for this initial gathering of data and its analysis as we search for these neurological touch points.

To learn more about supporting Dr. Salinas’ research, please contact us.

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