Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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

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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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