Brandon Staglin

Brandon Staglin is the president of One Mind, a nonprofit that seeks to fund scientists' promising research into brain health. 

In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s 24th Music Festival for Brain Health, Brandon Staglin was understandably busy.

He was finishing his online master’s degree in health care administration and professional leadership and was helping his family prepare to host 500 people at Rutherford’s Staglin Family Vineyards for the festival. Staglin, both the marketing and communications director for his family winery and the president of the nonprofit One Mind, said he finished his classwork on Aug. 26. The course ends Thursday, Sept. 13.

“Life is challenging and I think it is for everyone in different ways,” he said, sitting in the shade in the backyard of his parents’ home on the winery property. “I intentionally seek out challenges to grow from and I think my experience with schizophrenia has emboldened me to try things like that.”

Staglin was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1990 and recovered with both medical treatment and cognitive training for his brain.

“Having recovered from schizophrenia, I feel like I can try things that are demanding,” although he said when he began the master’s program, he wasn’t sure he had what it would take to get through it.

He did, though, studying until midnight many nights a week, after he finished working. After his year-long classes ended, he said he was tired, “but my brain health was still good. I was still stable and still feeling hopeful about things and doing fine in the classes. I was very happy to know that for myself.” But, Staglin added, “I slept for nine hours straight on Monday night, which was refreshing.”

In 23 years, the Staglins’ Music Festival for Brain Health has raised and leveraged almost $300 million for brain health research. The event includes a scientific symposium, featuring updates on the state of brain health research, a cult wine tasting featuring 75 Napa Valley producers, a concert featuring Grammy Award-winning artist Jennifer Hudson, and an exclusive four-course dinner prepared by three Michelin Star Chef Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood and The Charter Oak. All of the events are sold out and the Staglins expect 500 people for the symposium, wine tasting and concert. Kostow will serve dinner to 200 people.

The Staglins started One Mind in 1995 and in the years since, Brandon has reached out and collaborated with many in the scientific community. One Mind and its advisory board of directors, made up of top scientists, provide seed capital for young scientists to determine if their research projects are feasible. If the research data shows promise, it’s likely that the National Institute of Mental Health will fund further research. This year, One Mind will provide $250,000 in three-year grants to three “Rising Star” scientists to further their research.

Staglin said, “Those Rising Star scientists go on to develop better treatments for conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, traumatic brain injury, compulsive/obsessive disorder, things like that.” The grants give their careers a boost and it helps them develop into more effective scientists “to help patients down the road,” he added.

In 2010, one of the Rising Star scientists was Joshua Gordon, who was an assistant professor at Columbia University. Today, he is the director of the National Institute of Mental Health and one of the leading scientists in the U.S. in the mental health research field.

Mindstrong Health

Speaking at the scientific symposium will be Dr. Thomas Insel, former NIMH director and one of three co-founders of Mindstrong Health, and Dr. Beth Stevens of Harvard Medical School.

Mindstrong Health, a Silicon Valley startup, uses a Smartphone app to monitor a patient’s brain health to help clinicians understand how they are doing. “Say somebody goes to a doctor and has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and begins treatment,” Staglin said. “This person could use the Mindstrong Health app on their phone to monitor how they are doing from minute to minute and from day to day.”

The patient can track their brain health, a doctor can track it and their family can track it. “That helps keep people safer and on a better track to recovery because so often as a person begins to relapse, nobody really notices it for a while, including the patient,” Staglin said. “If it gets beyond the threshold of safety, the app could give an alert to the patient, to their caregiver or their doctor to let them know.”

In research studies, the app has “been shown to be a very accurate means of gauging someone’s brain health for a variety of conditions,” he added.

Dr. Beth Stevens will talk about her research in the brain concerning “complements,” which is a type of brain cell, like an immune cell. Staglin describes the research: When a person is a teenager, they have lots of connections between the nerve cells in the brain called synapses. As a child grows up, they develop more and more synapses, because their brains are learning so many things.

As that person becomes older, having that many synapses is inefficient and your brain needs to pare them down and become more efficient at processing information. That’s where complements come in, because those brain cells attack the synapses. It’s a natural process, but if it destroys too many synapses, it can cause conditions like psychosis, schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s Disease.

Aurora program

One Mind and NIMH are jointly sponsoring the Aurora Program, which is a collaboration between 30 universities across the United States. The purpose of Aurora is to study 3,000 patients to understand and detect what happens to the brain immediately after an adverse emotional traumatic event. It might develop into post-traumatic stress, anxiety or depression. The Mindstrong Health app is a part of that study.

“Brain health is a huge area of medical need right now,” Staglin said. “We’re addressing that in the most strategic way we know by forming a large consortium of scientists to work together like the Aurora program. That’s more effective than funding individual universities because if science is done in silos, as unfortunately happens so often, then the results are not going to be replicable, they’re not going to be as useful as when they are done with a large set of people doing one study at a time.”

ASPIR progam

At this year’s Music Festival, Staglin said he will announce the launching of ASPIR (Applications in Serious Psychiatric Illness Recovery), a program that seeks to screen 75 percent of young people for early signs of psychosis and after treatment, to improve the recovery rate to 75 percent. Staglin said these benchmarks will be reached by 2040, although that is “a great improvement over the way it is now,” he added. Currently, there are 30 programs in California, like SOAR at the Aldea Family Center, that screen young people; and 200 across the nation.

Those 200 programs screen about 8 percent of the young people who start to develop psychosis every year. Staglin said that’s “not nearly enough.”

The outreach component, teaching school counselors and nurses to train teachers to look for early warning signs of psychosis, is crucially important. Those signs include:

- Declining school performance;

- Withdrawing from social activities and hobbies;

- Suspicious thoughts that aren’t based on anything objective;

- Unusual thought content, like seeing a billboard and thinking there is a message especially for them.

Staglin has lots of plans and enough projects, including three Ken Burns’ documentaries about brain health in the next 10 years, to keep him busy for a long time. Stay tuned.

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star and The Weekly Calistogan.