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How does the human brain age? Scientists look for answers in Lakewood Ranch

Bike trails and parks are some of the amenities in the sprawling Lakewood Ranch area, which has attracted a variety of residents, from young families to retirees. Researchers say the wide mix of people is why they chose the community for their decades-long study on how the human brain develops and responds to various factors over a lifetime. [Courtesy of Eric Nalpas Photography]
Published Apr. 2

A sprawling, master-planned community just south of Tampa Bay could become the brain health research epicenter of the country.

Lakewood Ranch, a 31,000-acre area with more than 36,000 residents in Sarasota and Manatee counties has been selected as the site of a decades-long study on how the human brain ages and the factors that contribute to its decline.

It will be similar to the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 in Framingham, Mass., and is largely credited with identifying the long-term effects of smoking on the heart, the benefits of aspirin and a healthy diet, and the relationships between high cholesterol and heart attacks.

MORE: Visit the Times Health page for news that impacts you and your family.

Medical studies like these are large undertakings due to the financial and time commitment, and therefore aren't done often, researchers said. But their impact can be global.

For the Lakewood Ranch study, "the goal was to design a one-of-a-kind large-scale effect to address the issue of brain health," said Stephanie Peabody, a neuropsychologist and the executive director of the Building A Brain Healthy Community Initiative.

"Compared to other organs in the body, very little is known about the brain and what factors shape its development," she said. "We hope to learn more about what leads to a mature brain as well as the effects of the aging process."

The research is being conducted by The Academy for Brain Health and Performance and Massachusetts General Hospital, the largest teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School.

Peabody said the work could help prevent — or at least give researchers a better understanding — of illnesses like autism, addiction, stroke, Parkinson's disease and dementia, among many others.

The project includes a study of the risks and protective factors that contribute to overall good brain health, Peabody said.

As part of the collaboration, the initiative will join a 305-acre science and technology campus in Lakewood Ranch that will include 971,000 square feet for research facilities and educational spaces with other academic partners. The campus is still under construction but has two tenants already: a medical distribution company, Mercedes Scientific, and Florida Cancer Specialists.

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The Boston-based initiative considered multiple locations across the country, but chose Lakewood Ranch because of its size and the wide age range of its residents. The area is a "planned community," which means it's a large neighborhood that offers housing at various price points and amenities.

It has attracted young families as well as retirees, mostly middle and upper middle class and generally white. Their median household income is $91,036 and the average age is 47. More than 81 percent of residents have a college degree.

In addition to a commercial district, Lakewood Ranch also is home to a number of athletic and recreational amenities — from bike trails and tennis courts, to parks and facilities for soccer and polo.

Eric Onstad moved there three years ago with his wife and son, and hasn't looked back.

"My wife was in Orlando for a conference, and one of her colleagues told her to come check out this community called Lakewood Ranch," Onstad said. "She called me right after and said, 'We're moving.'"

So the Onstads packed up their Washington, D.C., life and moved south. Onstad, who is a veteran and served in the Army for 24 years, volunteered to participate in the study.

"I suffered a traumatic brain injury while I was in Iraq," he said.

He found out about the study from the initial survey that was sent to residents.

"I went to the doctor and talked to a physician about some devices they are developing for brain health," he said. "They thought I was a great candidate because of my diagnosis."

Over time, researchers studying Lakewood Ranch hope to discover the factors that aid and hinder brain health, and how brains perform across a lifetime at the biological, personal and social and community levels.

"We were looking for a visionary community that had the size necessary and growth potential to launch and sustain this work," said Peabody, the neuropsychologist.

"Lakewood Ranch is a multi-generational community, with a heavy emphasis on 'live-work-play' across all sectors. We will not have to go far to find a range of candidates."

The project's first phase, which has ended, involved initial surveys of 454 adults and 42 children who expressed interest in participating. The group included business leaders, medical professionals, teachers, students, people from religious and civic organizations and others. Participants ranged in age from 17 to 81.

The initiative hopes to raise $1.6 million in community donations to support the next two phases of the project.

Phase two is to build the organization's infrastructure within Lakewood Ranch, and begin collecting data from residents. Phase three will be focused on testing brain health innovations and continuing to follow participants.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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