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Brain Training Games: Context, Trends, Questions

A spate of recent news cov­er­age on brain fit­ness and “brain train­ing” reflects a grow­ing inter­est in nat­ur­al, non-drug-based inter­ven­tions to keep our brains sharp as we age. This inter­est is very time­ly, giv­en the aging pop­u­la­tion, increas­ing Alzheimer’s rates, and soar­ing health care costs that place more empha­sis than ever on pre­ven­tion and chang­ing lifestyle.

This past Tues­day, the MIT Club of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the Amer­i­can Soci­ety on Aging, and Smart­Sil­vers spon­sored an event on The Emerg­ing Brain Fit­ness Soft­ware Mar­ket: Build­ing Bet­ter Brains to explore the real­i­ties and myths of this grow­ing field. The pan­el was mod­er­at­ed by Zack Lynch, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Neu­rotech­nol­o­gy Indus­try Orga­ni­za­tion, and com­posed of a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist and 3 CEOs of pro­gram devel­op­ers in the field. Before the pan­el, I had the chance to present an overview of the state of the Brain Fit­ness Soft­ware Mar­ket based on our upcom­ing report to be released on March 4th.

Why are we talk­ing about this field at all? Well, for one, an increas­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies are achiev­ing sig­nif­i­cant com­mer­cial suc­cess in pack­ag­ing “brain exer­cise”. An exam­ple is the line of Nin­ten­do games, such as Brain Age and Brain Train­ing, that have shipped over 15 mil­lion units world­wide despite lim­it­ed sci­en­tif­ic sup­port, since 2005. What is less vis­i­ble is that a num­ber of com­pa­nies and sci­en­tists are part­ner­ing to bring prod­ucts to mar­ket with a more sol­id clin­i­cal val­i­da­tion. We esti­mate the US mar­ket was $225m in 2007 (grow­ing from $100 in 2005). Wheras K12 Edu­ca­tion used to be the major seg­ment, adult con­sumers are respon­si­ble for most of that growth: we esti­mate the con­sumer seg­ment grew from a few mil­lion in 2005 to $80 m in 2007.

Who is buy­ing these prod­ucts? Yes, of course, many adults over 50 who want to pro­tect their mem­o­ry are among the pio­neers. 78 mil­lion baby boomers are eager to try new approach­es. A grow­ing num­ber of retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties and nurs­ing homes are offer­ing pro­grams to their res­i­dents to expand their usu­al fit­ness and social activ­i­ties. And we can’t for­get about K12 edu­ca­tion: cer­tain brain fit­ness soft­ware pack­ages have shown they can help kids who have dyslex­ia and relat­ed dif­fi­cul­ties.

Is there sci­ence behind these claims? Do these prod­ucts work? It depends on how we define “work”. If “work­ing” means quan­tifi­able short-term improve­ments after a num­ber of weeks of sys­tem­at­ic “brain train­ing” to improve spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills, then the answer is that a num­ber of pro­grams do seem to work. If , on the oth­er hand, “work­ing” means mea­sur­able long-term ben­e­fits, such as bet­ter over­all brain health as we age, or low­er inci­dence of Alzheimer’s symp­toms, the answer is that cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence sug­gests they may, but it is still too ear­ly to tell.

Are there any pub­lic pol­i­cy impli­ca­tions? We cer­tain­ly believe that there are. The Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol recent­ly part­nered with the Alzheimer’s Asso­ci­a­tion to devel­op a com­pre­hen­sive Cog­ni­tive Health roadmap to bet­ter guide research efforts and improve pub­lic edu­ca­tion on the lifestyle habits that every proud own­er of a brain could ben­e­fit from fol­low­ing. Giv­en the high rates of trau­mat­ic brain injuries and stress dis­or­ders found in a large num­ber of the men and women com­ing home from the Iraq war, the mil­i­tary is invest­ing heav­i­ly in research to help iden­ti­fy prob­lems to devel­op tools to solve them, and we expect that research will trans­late into wider health appli­ca­tions. No pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, to our knowl­edge, has direct­ly addressed his or her pri­or­i­ties in the cog­ni­tive health realm but, giv­en the grow­ing impor­tance and eco­nom­ic impact of brain-relat­ed dis­or­ders, we expect that to hap­pen soon.

What are some trends that exec­u­tives and investors should be look­ing at to under­stand this grow­ing mar­ket? Let me make a few pre­dic­tions:

1) An increased empha­sis on Brain Main­te­nance, from retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties to gyms and health clubs. Will health clubs one day offer brain fit­ness pro­grams, and per­haps “brain coach­es”? We think so.
2) Bet­ter and more wide­ly avail­able assess­ments of cog­ni­tive func­tion will enable of all us to estab­lish an objec­tive base­line of how our minds are evolv­ing, iden­ti­fy pri­or­i­ties for “work­outs” and lifestyle inter­ven­tions, and help us mea­sure progress. Sci­ence-fic­tion? Not real­ly. there are already pret­ty good tests used in clin­i­cal and med­ical envi­ron­ments, the chal­lenge will be to refine and pack­age those assess­ments in a con­sumer-friend­ly way.
3) We will see more and bet­ter com­put­er-based tools, each of which may be more appro­pri­ate to work on spe­cif­ic pri­or­i­ties. Just as we find a vari­ety of machines in health clubs today, in the future we can expect dif­fer­ent pro­grams tai­lored to train spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills.
4) More non-com­put­er based tools will also pro­vide much val­ue. There is more and more research on how med­i­ta­tion and cog­ni­tive ther­a­py, to men­tion 2 exam­ples, can be very effec­tive in lit­er­al­ly re-wiring parts of the brain.
5) Insur­ance Com­pa­nies will intro­duce incen­tives for mem­ber who want to fol­low brain fit­ness pro­grams. Per­haps even com­pa­nies will offer such pro­grams to employ­ees to attract and retain mature work­ers who want access to the best and the lat­est inno­va­tions to keep their minds sharp.

Now, this being a pret­ty new field, the pan­el dis­cussed sev­er­al open ques­tions, that will only be clar­i­fied with time:
— What is the right busi­ness mod­el? are we talk­ing about con­tent-dri­ven edu­tain­ment? or ther­a­peu­tic appli­ca­tions, per­haps with some reg­u­la­tions by the FDA? sell­ing soft­ware prod­ucts? online sub­scrip­tions?
— What is the killer appli­ca­tion? fun games with unproven brain ben­e­fits? pro­grams that improve the men­tal skills involved in spe­cif­ic activ­i­ties, such as dri­ving? appli­ca­tions that help slow down the pro­gres­sion from Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment to full-blown Alzheimer’s symp­toms?
— How will con­sumers and insti­tu­tions receive qual­i­ty infor­ma­tion and edu­ca­tion to nav­i­gate through the emerg­ing research and the over­whelm­ing num­ber of new pro­grams, sep­a­rat­ing real­i­ty from hype?

In sum­ma­ry, what were the main take-aways from the event?
1. Research indi­cates that a num­ber of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties (atten­tion, mem­o­ry…) can be assessed and trained
2. An emerg­ing mar­ket is start­ing to devel­op-grow­ing from an esti­mat­ed $100m in 2005 to $225m in 2007, in the US alone-, and is poised to keep grow­ing at sig­nif­i­cant rates.
3. Many com­pa­nies are cur­rent­ly sell­ing prod­ucts direct to con­sumers (as well as through insti­tu­tions) with some­times unclear claims — this threat­ens to con­fuse con­sumers and present a major obsta­cle to the growth and cred­i­bil­i­ty of the sec­tor.

These top­ics, and more, and what we cov­er in depth in our upcom­ing report “The State of the Brain Fit­ness Soft­ware Mar­ket 2008,” to be pre­sent­ed on March 4th at the O’Reilly Emerg­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Con­fer­ence, and released the fol­low­ing week dur­ing Brain Aware­ness Week. If inter­est­ed, stay tuned!

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5 Responses

  1. Kenneth Heinrich says:

    Hel­lo, Alvaro.

    Excit­ing stuff here!Is there now, or will there be short­ly, a seri­ous guide to find­ing com­put­er based brain train­ing prod­ucts? And sec­ond­ly, a good friend is mar­ket­ing direc­tor for an excel­lent com­pa­ny pro­vid­ing lifestyle train­ing for opti­mum health to com­pa­nies who wish to have a healthy work­force. It is very suc­cess­ful, and
    well designed and oper­at­ed by a staff with master’s and doc­tor­ates in Pub­lic Health. Is there some­one she should con­tact to see about imple­ment­ing brain train­ing in the menu of options they pro­vide?

    Thank you.

    Ken

  2. sj says:

    well its nice and seri­ous guide of brain development.we hope soon­er or lat­er it will also be help­ful to improve our capac­i­ty of learn­ing things.

  3. Roger says:

    Hi,

    Very inter­est­ing all this infor­ma­tion sur­round­ing brain main­te­nance for seniors. I have also start­ed devel­op­ing a web­site ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing seniors with basic pc and inter­net skills. I already train seniors for a num­ber of years now so I have got­ten some guides togeth­er which in my expe­ri­ence approach teach­ing seniors in the cor­rect man­ner. Judge for your­self by down­load­ing my free report. This is very infor­ma­tive and help­ful for all begin­ners and espe­cial­ly seniors.

    Best wish­es

    Roger

  4. Alvaro says:

    Ken­neth, the report we will release on March 4th is aimed at help­ing pro­fes­sion­als and insti­tu­tions under­stand and nav­i­gate this emerg­ing field. Please send us an email at infor­ma­tion (at) sharp­brains (dot) com regard­ing that oppor­tu­ni­ty, we’d be delight­ed to talk to your friend.

    Roger: will take a look at your site.

  5. Robert says:

    Well Roger, I was unable to deter­mine your web­site url, so i was unable to check it out.

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