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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4 Responses

  1. Gary Dashney says:

    Excellent article Dr. Finnemore. Nice concise overview of the current brain fitness industry and current scientific findings. I have always appreciated the objective approach that Sharp Brains has taken in this field. Again, thanks for the great information.

  2. Jeff Haebig says:

    Let’s not forget the role of movement connecting body-brain function. Primary reflexes are particularly important to one’s sensory-motor capabilities and learning. Cheers for your insightful work.

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