Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Brain fitness & training heads towards its tipping point

How do you know when some­thing is fast mov­ing towards a Glad­wellian tip­ping point? When health insur­ance com­pa­nies and pub­lic pol­icy mak­ers launch sig­nif­i­cant initiatives.

For exam­ple, the gov­ern­ment of Ontario recently announced a $10 mil­lion invest­ment with Bay­crest Research Cen­tre who will part­ner with MaRS Ven­ture Group to develop and com­mer­cialise brain fit­ness tech­nolo­gies. The invest­ment was matched by an addi­tional $10 mil­lion from pri­vate sources.

Another impor­tant devel­op­ment was the $18 mil­lion agree­ment between the Australian-based Brain Resource Com­pany (ASX:BRC) and OptumHealth in the US. This will allow for the pro­vi­sion of web-based cog­ni­tive assess­ments as part of a clinician’s deci­sion sup­port systems.

These are some ini­tia­tives cov­ered in a webi­nar Top Ten Cog­ni­tive Fit­ness Events of 2008 pre­sented in Decem­ber for Sharp­Brains’ clients. Alvaro Fer­nan­dez described the state of play and main dri­vers behind the growth of the bur­geon­ing brain fit­ness mar­ket — which I will try and sum­ma­rize here.

The key dri­vers seem to be sci­ence and baby boomer demand. The sci­ence is based upon the con­cept of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity. This pro­poses that the brain is far more flex­i­ble than pre­vi­ously thought. Neural con­nec­tions and path­ways change in response to influ­ences, even thoughts. This makes the brain mal­leable, adapt­able and train­able. Prob­a­bly the most fas­ci­nat­ing account of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is con­tained in a col­lec­tion of sto­ries by Cana­dian psy­chi­a­trist Nor­man Doidge in his book The Brain That Changes Itself. He sug­gests that the anal­ogy “plant-like” rather than “machine-like” best describes the brain.

78 mil­lion baby boomers in the US alone (now in their 50s and 60s) are will­ing to put effort and time into retain­ing men­tal sharp­ness. Allied to this is a new under­stand­ing of cog­ni­tive deficits asso­ci­ated with aging, a num­ber of which can be improved or alle­vi­ated by train­ing the brain. Another dri­ver is the sup­ply of cog­ni­tive enhance­ment prod­ucts, some more science-based than others.

But while there is huge poten­tial, there’s also (like any new indus­try) con­fu­sion and the emer­gence of what can be called neu­rob­a­b­ble: all sorts of impressive-sounding but ran­dom and unsub­stan­ti­ated claims. It is very impor­tant for both pro­fes­sion­als as well as con­sumers to have access to objec­tive, informed infor­ma­tion. The indus­try needs to mature in a ratio­nal way.

Over­all brain health com­prises four com­ple­men­tary pil­lars: bal­anced nutri­tion, stress man­age­ment, phys­i­cal exer­cise and brain exer­cise. While phys­i­cal exer­cise has been shown to increase the rate at which new neu­rons are cre­ated, chronic stress reduces this, so both aspects are impor­tant. Phys­i­cal exer­cise not only helps with stress but has been shown to enhance brain phys­i­ol­ogy. While some well-known sup­ple­ments such as ginkgo  biloba have not shown long-term mem­ory ben­e­fits, research has sup­ported the value of omega-3 long chain fatty acids as part of our diets. Men­tal exer­cise is cru­cial to strengthen the con­nec­tions between neu­rons and help pro­tect impor­tant cog­ni­tive skills.

The main sec­tors show­ing an inter­est in brain fit­ness today are con­sumers, health care and med­ical insur­ance providers, as well as spe­cific inter­est groups such as the mil­i­tary and pro­fes­sional sport. Some of the com­put­er­ized tools –stand alone soft­ware, online appli­ca­tions, embed­ded devices– tra­di­tion­ally would have been used in spe­cial needs or clin­i­cal envi­ron­ments but are now offer­ings are going main­stream. It goes with­out say­ing that there is a strong research and devel­op­ment pipeline — and also much con­fu­sion,
Demon­strat­ing the poten­tial effect of train­ing is a 2008 study by Mar­tin Buschkuehl and col­leagues at the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan’s Cog­ni­tive Neu­roimag­ing Lab and pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences. Using a com­plex work­ing mem­ory train­ing task, they were able to show how improve­ments directly trans­lated into enhanced fluid intel­li­gence per­for­mance. (Fluid intel­li­gence can be described as the abil­ity to deal with new chal­lenges and sit­u­a­tions that are encoun­tered for the first time).

Ven­ture cap­i­tal is tak­ing notice. Pri­vate equity group Galen Part­ners arranged finance of $10.6m for Dakim Inc, a brain fit­ness tech­nol­ogy ser­vice provider. The fund­ing will enable Dakim to extend its prod­uct range. In addi­tion, cog­ni­tive skills train­ing start-up Cog­niFit has raised $5m from French ven­ture cap­i­tal fund Milk Cap­i­tal. California-based Lumos Labs raised $3m from First­Mark Cap­i­tal and Nor­west Ven­ture Part­ners for lumosity.com.

In addi­tion, All­state (NYSE:ALL) has launched a large-scale research project to mea­sure the impact of a Posit Sci­ence prod­uct called InSight to improve dri­ving skills of over 50s. The US Army has launched a new pol­icy requir­ing cog­ni­tive screen­ings of sol­diers before deploy­ment to in order to bet­ter diag­nose and treat prob­lems such as Post Trau­matic Stress Dis­or­der and Trau­matic Brain Injury upon return. Viv­ity Labs in Van­cou­ver raised $1m from angel investors to extend their offer­ing called Fit Brains.

Admin­is­tra­tors and coaches of sports teams are also see­ing the value. Tak­ing the lead from a sys­tem designed to train fighter pilots, USA Hockey, part­ner­ing with Israeli-based ACE (Applied Cog­ni­tive Engi­neer­ing) and the BIRD (Bina­tional Indus­trial Research and Devel­op­ment) Foun­da­tion, have launched an ambi­tious $3m project called Hockey Intel­li­gym. USA Hockey CEO Dave Ore­gon said the prod­uct should be able to sub­stan­tially improve player skills.

The aging soci­ety is of course a main fac­tor to have in mind. The World Eco­nomic Forum asked Alvaro to be part of team tasked with inves­ti­gat­ing ways to pre­pare for an aging soci­ety. The task­force has so far focused on the need to cap­ture the “longevity div­i­dend” by fully util­is­ing human cap­i­tal and invest­ing in life­long learn­ing and healthy liv­ing ini­tia­tives rather than suc­cumb­ing to the trend of see­ing an aging soci­ety as a threat to the health­care system.

In short, the cog­ni­tive fit­ness field holds excit­ing promise for the future and the level of inter­est from a wide vari­ety of areas bears wit­ness to that. Sharp­Brains clients will surely look for­ward to keep­ing in touch with future webi­nars along the lines of Top Ten Cog­ni­tive Fit­ness Events of 2008.

Every­one in the US and elsewhere…I hope you enjoy the inau­gu­ra­tion tomorrow!

Dr. Ger­ard Finnemore is a Sharp­Brains reader, for­mer writer, and cur­rent clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in pri­vate prac­tice in South Africa.

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