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Wellness
By Mary Bolster

Get Involved with World Brain Day

Illustration by Jeannie Phan

On July 22, the American Academy of Neurology will participate in a webinar for World Brain Day on prevention and treatment of neurologic disabilities. The webinar is intended for patients, clinicians, policymakers, and caregivers and also will include representatives from the World Health Organization, the World Federation of Neurology (WFN), and neurology associations in Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

The WFN marks World Brain Day every July 22, and in 2023 the theme is “Brain Health and Disability: Leave No One Behind,” which the WFN hopes will inspire a global initiative to expand awareness of disability and improve health care access for people with disabilities.

“The vision of the WFN is to bring this concept—that disabled people also need care and services and have a right to brain health across the life span—to our member societies around the world,” says Wolfgang Grisold, MD, FAAN, president of the federation. Another goal is to reduce the stigma around disability, he adds.

World Brain Day has five aims: to improve prevention and treatment of brain disabilities; to increase awareness of brain disorders; to promote universal access to care, treatment, rehabilitation, and assistive technology; to educate health care professionals and others on behalf of those living with brain disabilities; and to advocate for brain health as a right that applies to everyone everywhere.

“We neurologists need to make sure people with disabilities are getting the care and support they need to live the lives they determine are the ones they want to live,” says Diana Cejas, MD, MPH, assistant professor of neurology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “As a pediatric neurologist, I'm especially interested in health equity and improving doctor-patient relationships.”

Dr. Cejas has been spreading the word about World Brain Day on social media. She believes the day and its theme can help bring patients and health care professionals together to better understand one another's needs. “Disability is still stigmatized in the medical field. This is an opportunity to talk about it openly and discuss treatment, cures, and prevention and make sure people with disabilities have brains that are as healthy as possible.” After having had a stroke herself during her medical training, Dr. Cejas often felt stigmatized. It wasn't until she found other young stroke survivors that she was comfortable talking about her disabilities. Her experience taught her that “you can be disabled and happy, disabled and healthy, disabled and have a good quality of life.”

Divya Singhal, MD, FAAN, adjunct professor of neurology and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Texas in San Antonio, understands the value of rehabilitation from personal experience. Her grandmother had multiple sclerosis. “She was diagnosed in her twenties and lived until her seventies. She used a wheelchair and lived an amazingly fulfilling life,” says Dr. Singhal, who is also chief of the Spinal Cord Injury and Disorder Center at the South Texas VA. “Neuroplasticity is real,” she says. “If you start rehab early and do it consistently, you will see improvements, especially in the first six months after a diagnosis.”

Carol Leish, a writer and motivational speaker in Ventura, CA, has been a disability advocate for a long time. She was just 10 months old when she sustained a head injury in a 1963 car crash that affected her vision, voice, and hand, eye, and overall coordination. Her parents' advocacy and encouragement made a big difference as she was growing up. Now Leish speaks to audiences about the need to eliminate prejudices against people who have disabilities, sharing the message “Treat me with respect.” She also created Call Me Capable, an educational board game for students designed to foster respect and empathy for those with disabilities.

Pursuing landscape photography helped Kim Mulholland recover from surgery to remove a brain tumor in August 2021. She spent the following year and a half in physical therapy, learning to walk again. She also developed chronic pain syndrome and struggled with depression. “I felt a real sense of loss,” says the former speech and language pathologist and trauma therapist in Clyde, NC. “My entire life had been altered because of my gait problems and constant debilitating pain.”

Taking pictures of nature, she says, was a way to find beauty and meaning in her life. “Through my photos, I hope to provide comfort, connection, and inspiration to those facing similar struggles,” says Mulholland, who donated a landscape print to the hospital where she was diagnosed. “My experience has taught me that even in the darkest moments, there is still hope for healing and recovery.”

After Joy Wagner was diagnosed with MS in 2001, she knew that as a nurse she could help others with the disease. Her first idea was creating FitMS, an adaptive post-rehabilitation exercise class. “Beyond improving balance, flexibility, and coordination, it did amazing things for participants' attitudes,” she says. Wagner eventually expanded the program to include stroke survivors, people with Parkinson's disease, and those with other neurologic disorders. In 2010, she opened the NeuroBalance Center in Barrington, IL. “Our next goal is to influence the planning stages for new public buildings to make them accessible so everyone can participate,” Wagner says. “We need to move beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines from 1990. Current guidelines only barely make access possible.”

The WFN hopes that World Brain Day will inspire more activism and events like these throughout the year. In addition to tuning in to the webinar, people can commemorate World Brain Day by starting discussions about disability on social media, sharing their own experiences, and reaching out to others. “People with disabilities have so many odds stacked against them,” says Dr. Grisold.

To sign up for the webinar and learn more about the initiative, visit wfneurology.org.