First Sunday Meeting Report October 2, 2016



HAI First Sunday Meeting 10th October 2016.  Below is a report on the topic delivered at that meeting:

Brain Health

by Sabina Brennan, NeuroscientistSabina Brennan

The meeting was chaired by Alan Tuffery, a member of the working group for First-Sunday Meetings, and was attended by about 60 members and visitors. It can be argued that humanists have a responsibility to look after their own health, in the interests of both their own fulfilment and of society at large. As populations age, so the incidence of impaired cognitive ability rises. The main thrust of Sabina Brennan’s presentation was to define ‘dementia’, identify the risk factors and to demonstrate how the loss of cognitive ability can be delayed and ameliorated.

Dr Sabina Brennan is a psychologist, working in the Institute of Neuroscience and affiliated to the Department of Psychology in Trinity College, Dublin. As well as co-directing the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives Programme, she works on the development of educational materials about brain health.

There are about 55,000 persons with dementia in Ireland. Most are hidden away and the funding for research and support is only about 5% of that for cancer.

A key concept is that of ‘cognitive reserve’: how well the brain is used so that many connections are formed within it. When there is damage to the brain, the undamaged part is able take over many of the lost functions (‘plasticity’). This is greatly enhanced if the brain is used to making new connections and the different regions are used to working together. Actions taken to improve brain health are effective at all stages of life, and can help to preserve function even after impairment of cognitive function has occurred. That said, it has to be recognised that brain function does slow with increasing age. Giving ourselves permission to take the extra time needed to process information may actually pay dividends in terms of our cognitive performance

Individuals can take steps to reduce the risk of cognitive impairment, by tackling each of the main risk factors (except age, which is inevitable!). Regular physical activity, leading to good cardiovascular fitness is a great help (see HSE guidelines); maintaining a healthy weight, ceasing smoking and reducing alcohol consumption to a ‘moderate level’ will minimise damage. In short, a sensible, healthy lifestyle with managed stress will be valuable. In addition, keeping the brain involved by learning new skills (e.g. choosing any of the many free online courses) and keeping an active social life will keep the brain healthy and ‘plastic’ by building a cognitive reserve.

The discussion was wide-ranging, from the effects of specific types of exercise and diseases (especially MS and Down Syndrome). Increasing social isolation in old age is a serious risk. [A future meeting will learn about McAuley Place’s mitigation of this aspect.]

Much of Sabina Brennan’s educational material is available at This includes an app to prompt activities which are positive for brain health (also available in diary form).

Alan Tuffery
October 2016

Biographical Notes

Sabina Brennan (PhD) is a research psychologist affiliated with the School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin. She is a principal investigator at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) and the ADAPT Centre, TCD.

She currently co-directs the NEIL (Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives) Programme in TCIN where her research focuses on understanding dementia risk and protective factors and how we might promote brain health across the lifespan and prevent dementia or change the trajectory of the disease.

She left school at 16 (with her leaving cert) and worked in Irish Life Assurance Company for 15 years. She completed a teacher’s diploma with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and left the ‘day job’ to work as a drama teacher and pursue a career as a filmmaker and actor. After playing Tess Halpin in 160 episodes of Fair City she attended university as a mature student coming 1st in her class and graduating with a first class honours degree in psychology in 2007. In the same year she was awarded a Government of Ireland Scholarship (Irish Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology ) to complete a PhD in TCD.

She completed her PhD in 2010 and in 2012 was promoted to Research Assistant Professor after one year as a research fellow.

She believes in empowerment through education has secured millions of euro in funding to conduct research and to educational materials including animations, websites, and apps.

All of the materials that she has develops are freely available online. Her animated films have been viewed in more than 140 countries, have been translated into several languages and are used for training and education by healthcare professionals and advocacy organisations on four continents.

She is a passionate public speaker and believes that science is for sharing.


Upcoming Meetings:

6th Nov — AGM (members only)

4th Dec — Social