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.


  1. Gary Dashney on January 26, 2009 at 9:49

    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 on January 26, 2009 at 9:59

    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.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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