Summit empowers women to take charge of their brain health

The Wonder of Women event brought together Hollywood celebrities and UCLA trailblazers for a day of conversation about mental health

Elaine Schmidt

UCLA alumna and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles blew the roof off a packed ballroom with her powerful performance of her anthem, “Brave,” setting the tone for a day of self-discovery and conversation about mental health at the Wonder of Women Summit on April 11.

Johnese Spisso, president of UCLA Health, welcomed 500 attendees to the star-studded occasion, which melded the cream of Hollywood celebrities with UCLA trailblazers in fields ranging from medicine to athletics.

Emceed by actress Lisa Kudrow, the event was hosted by UCLA’s Friends of the Semel Institute and Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital Board of Advisors at the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center.

The mood, while always inspiring, ranged from playful to profound.

Participants shook their hips to a high-energy routine led by Dancing with the Stars’ Julianne Hough, and enjoyed a peaceful group meditation guided by Diana Winston of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Neuroscientist Dr. Kelsey Martin, dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, shared the stage with Maria Shriver to announce an innovative joint initiative. The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, led by Shriver, will support female-specific Alzheimer’s research at the medical school and unravel unique causes of the disease in women.

“I’m excited that an institution like UCLA recognizes that when it comes to medicine, sex differences matter,” Shriver said. “Two-thirds of the people living with Alzheimer’s are women. Our bodies are different, yet most studies are conducted on men. Researching sex differences in health can save lives, so we can age with our minds and bodies intact.”

The importance of mothering — of yourself, your friends and your children — was a common thread.

“Motherhood changes the structure of your brain,” Dr. Catherine Birndorf, a New York psychiatrist specializing in reproductive health, told UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Robin Berman, who is also her best friend. “Motherhood also helps sculpt your child’s brain. If you’re a good mom, you’re growing along with your children.”

Valorie Kondos Field, head coach of the UCLA women’s gymnastics team, and gymnast Katelyn Ohashi shared how their close relationship sustained them through Field’s treatment for aggressive breast cancer and Ohashi’s recovery from a past marred by abusive coaches and painful injuries.

“The quality of the relationships we have,” said Field, holding Ohashi’s hand, “dictates the quality of life we have.”

Dr. Linda Liau, a mother of two and renowned neurosurgeon-scientist at the Geffen School, had the final word.

“There only one thing harder than brain surgery,” said Liau, whose quest to find a cure for glioblastoma stems from her mother’s death from brain cancer. “And that’s motherhood.”

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