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The Champalimaud Foundation launches a program to change unhealthy behaviors through technology

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Every day, a middle-aged man is tempted by a few beers in the late afternoon. There may not be technology that can change this behavior which is not good for cholesterol levels, but if it depends on Joe Paton, the Champalimaud Foundation should not delay in developing technologies that encourage changes in habits and scenarios in favor of health or well-being. A new program specializing in human neuroecology and digital technology starts this Friday with an exhibition combining art and science in a former auction house in Docapesca, in Lisbon, which will be transformed, in the coming months, into a scientific laboratory.

“We need to understand why people make certain decisions associated with certain behaviors and develop protocols more suited to these behaviors”, describes Joe Paton, director of the Neurosciences Program at the Champalimaud Foundation.

The term “protocol” is used by the scientist to describe tools as common as applications or video games, or more sophisticated technologies of virtual or augmented reality. “The idea is that, thanks to a protocol of this kind, it is possible to bring this person who drinks two beers a day to drink only two beers once a week”, illustrates the researcher. The use of digital technologies as a means of influencing behavior and generating new therapies is not new, even if it is far from being popularized. Joe Paton recalls that, in some American homes and hospitals, there are already those who use virtual reality technologies with elderly people with dementia with images that are familiar to them. Also in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the use of technologies with already popular gadgets for the treatment of drug addicts and/or the alleviation of chronic pain.

Champalimaud's new research program kicks off with a showcase of projects developed in partnership between artists and scientists

Champalimaud’s new research program kicks off with a showcase of projects developed in partnership between artists and scientists

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In Portugal, neurologist John Krakauer, also a member of the Champalimaud Foundation, tested video games at the Senior Neurological Campus, in Torres Vedras. In other parts of the country, the first clinics specializing in the treatment of different phobias through video games or virtual scenarios have already appeared.

“The focus is on the brain. Our idea is to be able to transform health in general, through our behaviors, which we know have their origin in the brain, and influence the functioning of other organs”, adds the American researcher, who has gone from arms and baggage to Champalimaud Foundation, in the first decade of the century.

Joe Paton cites Facebook as an example of the potential of technology to drive behavior change. The neuroscientist recalls that most social networks use techniques that collect data from people when they indicate what they like or dislike (with “likes”), in order to discover how to increase the time of ‘use. “We want to use similar ingredients (like in Facebook and other technology platforms) in a way that promotes health, longevity and resilience,” replies Joe Paton.

In addition to the success of the techniques used by social networks, there are also reports that show that laboratory mice have shown a greater probability of recovering up to 100% of the abilities lost after a cerebrovascular accident (CVA) when, at instead of recovery in immobilized rest, embark on the recovery of activity, immediately after the event.

Mitochondria, the “generators” of energy in human cells, feature in another of the examples given by the neuroscientist regarding the benefits of an active but non-stressful life. This cellular part is made up of 37 genes – and 19 respond in beneficial ways when humans exercise.

Paton points out that the brain is crucial in generating a coordinated approach that takes into account not only physiological factors, but also social or psychological factors. This is why new digital tools should try to positively stimulate the adoption of training plans, healthy diets or routines that reduce stress. The researcher admits that a 10% change in less healthy behaviors soon guarantees substantial benefits for the health of the population. “Drugs are essential, but that does not prevent us from studying ways to impact human biology in a coordinated way,” he underlines.

The new research line of the Champalimaud Foundation will occupy a Docapesca auction room which will be reformulated in the coming months

The new research line of the Champalimaud Foundation will occupy a Docapesca auction room which will be reformulated in the coming months

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The researcher does not set dates for the launch of the new generation of tools that will be developed by the scientists of the Champalimaud Foundation, but he admits that the medical certification process is less demanding than for medical devices, since they do not aim only to value experiences. with patients – provided there is sufficient data. Which is not always easy to guarantee, due to current technical and legal limitations. “We don’t want to create a big brother; we want to encourage collaboration with physicians and patients,” says Joe Paton.

From auction to laboratory

The first day of the rest of the life of the new line of investigation will be marked by the exhibition of works that resort to the capture of bodily movements and the interaction with virtual reality scenarios, as well as games that provide movements or actions that may be beneficial in preventing or treating disease.

The exhibited works are the result of partnerships between scientists and artists and aim to bridge the gap between the technologies that today, via television, console or mobile phone, have contributed to a sedentary life, and a new approach that intends to use these technologies as an incentive to change habits.

To open up a new field of research, the Champalimaud Foundation will begin to reformulate the former auction house into a set of laboratories for the development of technologies to influence behavior, as well as spaces specialized in clinical treatment.

The first three lab spaces are expected to be completed by the end of 2022 – but this will only be part of the planned redesign plan for the entire space that was once owned by Docapesca, and is now aimed at unlocking the brain human.

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