An artistic rendering of women’s brain health

Brain Canada and the Women’s Brain Health Initiative (a global think-tank headquartered in Montreal) used International Women’s Day to raise awareness of the urgent need for more equitable perspectives when it comes to brain health.

According to the Alzheimer Society, nearly two-thirds (65%) of people over the age of 65 who are diagnosed with dementia every year are women. But as in so many other areas of medicine, much of the research conducted around brain health has tended to be male-centric.

Neuroscience has historically relied on male test subjects to determine the impact of brain illnesses. A 2017 study analyzed 6,636 articles in six journals published between 2010 and 2014 and found that lab research using mice or rats historically ignored female animals—either by favouring male animals over female, or not reporting the sex of the animals involved in the findings.

Brain Canada and the Women’s Brain Health Initiative ran an ad in Tuesday’s edition of The Globe and Mail that used 16 pieces of art from artists all around the world to show different interpretations of women, from the abstract to the impressionistic. The pictures ran above a headline reading “We’re all different, and that’s why this is so important.”

The accompanying copy reveals that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression, dementia and stroke as they age, but brain research hasn’t studied the links between sex, gender or disease.

“It’s time for new, more equitable perspectives,” it concludes, noting that the Women’s Brain Health Initiative is partnering with Brain Health Canada to close the research gap.

On Tuesday, the Brain Health Initiative and Brain Canada announced funding for six research teams to either add a sex and/or gender component to a project that did not previously consider these factors, or enhance their existing efforts to include sex and/or gender components in their work.

The ad was created by Toronto agency Disruptincy, led by co-founder Geoffrey Roche. “I was trying to think how to show that women are different without just showing a bunch of photographs of different women,” said Roche. “I follow a lot of people who draw or paint, so I thought I could do something using different artists’ interpretation of women.”

The art for the ad was supplied by Roche himself, as well as several different artists he follows on Instagram or knows personally. They include former Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein co-founder Andy Berlin; and U.S. illustrator James McMullan, who designed more than 90 posters for Lincoln Center Theater, and whose work has appeared in publications including New York magazine (his art illustrated the famous Nik Cohn story “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which was the basis for the hit film Saturday Night Fever).

“Women are notorious for taking care others before taking care of themselves,” said Roche, who said he’s been struck in recent days by images of Ukrainians fleeing from the Russian invasion with their children in tow, leaving behind everyday life for an uncertain future. “It’s crazy that research around women’s brains and how they’re different has not been pursued as aggressively as it has among men.”

Roche has a particular affinity for Brain Health Canada and the study of brain health in particular, having seen the effects of brain injuries up close. He suffered a serious concussion following a 20-foot fall off a ladder, and about seven years ago, his adult son Nicholas had a “pretty catastrophic” fall off a bicycle that led to a concussion. A year-and-a-half struggle with debilitating headaches and light sensitivity followed, ultimately leading to him taking a year off work to recover.

“I can’t believe how amazing these people are, and how passionate they are about the research they do,” said Roche of Brain Health Canada.

Disruptincy also created short video reel (below) showcasing the art that is run on Instagram and TikTok. The video is soundtracked by the famous Booker T. & the M.G.’s instrumental track “Green Onions.” “I really like the piece, and was looking for something with energy to it that felt woman-like,” said Roche. “And it certainly wasn’t going to be [the Helen Reddy song] ‘I Am Woman.'”

Chris Powell