UCSF researcher studies how life experiences impact brain health

Finding his path
Like many young people growing up in Peru, Serggio Lanata, MD, MS was encouraged to decide on a career path before entering college. After figuring out what didn’t interest him, Serggio started to explore his interest in the biological sciences. 

Dr. Serggio Lanata

In human anatomy class, the chance to study human cadavers led to a fascination with the human body. This solidified Dr. Lanata’s desire to study medicine. With a strong interest in the workings of the human brain, he chose to specialize in neurology.

Today, Dr. Lanata is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Neurology and Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) faculty. He is also director of the UCSF Memory and Aging Center’s (MAAC) community outreach program. In 2019, Dr. Lanata received the 2019 UCSF School of Medicine Population Health and Health Equity Scholar Award. 

An upstream approach
Dr. Lanata’s research interests go beyond Alzheimer’s disease, to a focus on brain health. He is interested in how different stressors throughout life impact brain health and may make people more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. 

Currently Dr. Lanata is creating a tool to acquire a detailed assessment of a person’s life experiences. He will look at what opportunities or barriers people faced in their homes, neighborhoods, schools and communities. Serggio will combine the findings with other data being collected on the research participants, to see which factors impact brain health over time.

Building a presence in the community
The UCSF Memory and Aging Center provides patient care and conducts research. They also help to educate people on healthy aging, Alzheimer’s and other related disorders.

MAAC staff conduct outreach to vulnerable communities in the bay area. Similar to the Alzheimer’s Association, they are working to serve a very diverse community. Since coming to UCSF, Dr. Lanata has worked to grow the MAAC’s outreach efforts. 

He has also been working to connect people from all walks of life with MAAC programs and services. He does this by building a network of partnerships with other community groups.

Partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association
The Alzheimer’s Association is one of the nonprofits with whom Dr. Lanata has worked to help educate the community. He has spoken at several education events offered by the Association.

Community members often express their gratitude for Dr. Lanata’s talks. “There is a general awareness about what people should be doing for heart health and other areas,” he said, “but a lack of awareness of specific things that are good for brain health. People have a strong appetite for learning about the brain and ways to keep the brain healthy.”

Dr. Lanata enjoys this work. “I’m building a presence in the community,” shared Serggio. “It has been very fun. I like to feel like I’m doing something in the community.”

Capturing a diversity of lived experiences
Dr. Lanata has a strong commitment to encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to take part in research. “Each individual embodies a different life trajectory. In a city as diverse as San Francisco, people come from all over the world,” notes Dr. Lanata.

“It’s a perfect location to study how these different life trajectories, which are shaped by all of these social and environmental forces, as well as behaviors, habits and conditions come together to influence brain health. I talk about the importance of diversity of lived experience.”

Embracing the diversity within groups
Dr. Lanata recognizes that even within these groups, there is a breadth of experience. He shared an example from his own background. 

“I am often reminded by things I read here or conversations I have that there is a tendency to homogenize Latinos,” Dr. Lanata commented.  “When I think of my own country of Peru, I think of the diversity in cultural practices, language, food, education, etc. It’s like several countries within one.”  

Listening and learning more about each person’s situation are a key part of Dr. Lanata’s work. Some people may have better access to education, healthy food and a safe community than others from the same racial or ethnic group. Someone who is working two jobs may not be able to participate in a study that only meets on weekdays.

“You meet them, listen to them and acknowledge that there is tremendous diversity,” Dr. Lanata said. “I have found that if you listen carefully, show that you care, answer questions and explain things clearly, people want to help.”

Dr. Lanata tries to move away from an approach that siloes people into different categories. When he started talking about recruiting specific groups, some people questioned what made their brains different from those of other groups. 

Dr. Lanata’s did not intend to imply that a particular group was different from another. He now speaks about the desire to “bring in as many people as we can, who are diverse in their lived experiences.”

Hope for change
Besides helping people learn what impacts brain health, Dr. Lanata’s work also has the potential to lead to policy change. A similar approach is already being used to address other leading causes of death. 

Policies to increase seatbelt and child car seat use have lowered deaths from motor vehicle crashes. State and federal efforts to reduce kids’ access to tobacco and ban smoking in public places have prevented tobacco-related deaths. 

While he is still in the early phase of his research, Dr. Lanata is hopeful that the findings may add to what we know about brain health. “I hope that research such as this highlights the influence of social determinants and lived experience on brain health,” shared Dr. Lanata. “I hope that it shifts the focus from the person to the environment they are in and their lived experiences.”

Presentation by Dr. Lanata on outreach to underrepresented groups

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