Michael Merzenich on Brain Training, Assessments, and Personal Brain Trainers

Dr. Michael Merzenich Dr. Michael Merzenich, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor at UCSF, is a lead­ing pio­neer in brain plas­tic­i­ty research. In the late 1980s, Dr. Merzenich was on the team that invent­ed the cochlear implant. In 1996, he was the found­ing CEO of Sci­en­tif­ic Learn­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (Nas­daq: SCIL), and in 2004 became co-founder and Chief Sci­en­tif­ic Offi­cer of Posit Sci­ence. He was elect­ed to the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences in 1999 and to the Insti­tute of Med­i­cine this year. He retired as Fran­cis A. Sooy Pro­fes­sor and Co-Direc­tor of the Keck Cen­ter for Inte­gra­tive Neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at San Fran­cis­co in 2007. You may have learned about his work in one of PBS TV spe­cials, mul­ti­ple media appear­ances, or neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty-relat­ed books.

(Alvaro Fer­nan­dez) Dear Michael, thank you very much for agree­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the inau­gur­al Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit in Jan­u­ary, and for your time today. In order to con­tex­tu­al­ize the Sum­mit’s main themes, I would like to focus this inter­view on the like­ly big-pic­ture impli­ca­tions dur­ing the next 5 years of your work and that of oth­er neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty research and indus­try pioneers.

Thank you for invit­ing me. I believe the Sharp­Brains Sum­mit will be very use­ful and stim­u­lat­ing, you are gath­er­ing an impres­sive group togeth­er. I am look­ing for­ward to January.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty-based Tools: The New Health & Well­ness Frontier

There are many dif­fer­ent tech­nol­o­gy-free approach­es to harnessing/ enabling/ dri­ving neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. What is the val­ue that tech­nol­o­gy brings to the cog­ni­tive health table?

It’s all about effi­cien­cy, scal­a­bil­i­ty, per­son­al­iza­tion, and assured effec­tive­ness. Tech­nol­o­gy sup­ports the imple­men­ta­tion of near-opti­mal­ly-effi­cient brain-train­ing strate­gies. Through the Inter­net, it enables the low-cost dis­tri­b­u­tion of these new tools, any­where out in the world. Tech­nol­o­gy also enables the per­son­al­iza­tion of brain health train­ing, by pro­vid­ing sim­ple ways to mea­sure and address indi­vid­ual needs in each per­son­’s brain-health train­ing expe­ri­ence. It enables assess­ments of your abil­i­ties that can affirm that your own brain health issues have been effec­tive­ly addressed.

Of course sub­stan­tial gains could also be achieved by orga­niz­ing your every­day activ­i­ties that grow your neu­ro­log­i­cal abil­i­ties and sus­tain your brain health. Still, if the ordi­nary cit­i­zen is to have any real chance of main­tain­ing their brain fit­ness, they’re going to have to spend con­sid­er­able time at the brain gym!

One espe­cial­ly impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion of tech­nol­o­gy is the scal­a­bil­i­ty that it pro­vides for deliv­er­ing brain fit­ness help out into the world. Think about how effi­cient the drug deliv­ery sys­tem is today. Doc­tors pre­scribe drugs, insur­ance cov­ers them, and there is a drug store in every neigh­bor­hood in almost every city in the world so that every patient has access to them. Once neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty-based tools and out­comes and stan­dard­ized, we can envi­sion a sim­i­lar sce­nario. And we don’t need all those drug stores, because we have the Internet!

Hav­ing said this, there are obvi­ous obsta­cles. One main one, in my mind, is the lack of under­stand­ing of what these new tools can do. Cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams, for exam­ple, seem counter-intu­itive to con­sumers and many pro­fes­sion­als “ why would one try to improve speed-of-pro­cess­ing if all one cares about is mem­o­ry? A sec­ond obvi­ous prob­lem is to get indi­vid­u­als to buy into the effort required to real­ly change their brains for the bet­ter. That buy-in has been achieved for many indi­vid­u­als as it applies to their phys­i­cal health, but we haven’t got­ten that far yet in edu­cat­ing the aver­age old­er per­son that brain fit­ness train­ing is an equal­ly effort­ful business!

Tools for Safer Dri­ving: Teens and Adults

Safe dri­ving seems to be one area where the ben­e­fits are more intu­itive, which may explain the sig­nif­i­cant traction.

Yes, we see great poten­tial and inter­est among insur­ers for improv­ing dri­ving safe­ty, both for seniors and teens. Appro­pri­ate cog­ni­tive train­ing can low­er at-fault acci­dent rates. You can mea­sure clear ben­e­fits in rel­a­tive­ly short time frames, so it won’t take long for insur­ers to see an eco­nom­ic ratio­nale to not only offer pro­grams at low cost or for free but to incen­tivize dri­vers to com­plete them. All­state, AAA, State Farm and oth­er insur­ers are begin­ning to real­ize this poten­tial. It is impor­tant to note that typ­i­cal acci­dents among teens and seniors are dif­fer­ent, so that train­ing method­olo­gies will need to be dif­fer­ent for dif­fer­ent high-risk populations.

Yet, most dri­ving safe­ty ini­tia­tives today still focus on edu­cat­ing dri­vers, rather that train­ing them neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly. We mea­sure vision, for exam­ple, but com­plete­ly ignore atten­tion­al con­trol abil­i­ties, or a dri­ver’s use­ful field of view. I expect this to change sig­nif­i­cant­ly over the next few years.

Long-term care and health insur­ance com­pa­nies will ulti­mate­ly see sim­i­lar ben­e­fits, and we believe that they will fol­low a sim­i­lar course of action to reduce gen­er­al med­ical and neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease- (Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment and Alzheimer’s- and Parkin­sons-) relat­ed costs. In fact, many senior liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties are among the pio­neers in this field.

Boomers & Beyond: Main­tain­ing Cog­ni­tive Vitality

Main­stream media is cov­er­ing this emerg­ing cat­e­go­ry with thou­sands of sto­ries. But most cov­er­age seems still focused on does it work? more than “how do we define It”, what does work mean? or work for whom, and for what? Can you sum­ma­rize what recent research suggests?

We have seen clear pat­terns in the appli­ca­tion of our train­ing pro­grams, some pub­lished (like IMPACT), some unpub­lished, some with healthy adults, and some with peo­ple with mild cog­ni­tive impair­ment or ear­ly Alzheimers Dis­ease (AD). What we see in every case: 1) despite ones age, brain func­tion­ing can be improved, often with pret­ty impres­sive improve­ment in a short-time frame and lim­it­ed time invest­ed (10 or 20 or 30 or 40 hours over a peri­od of a few weeks up to 2 or 3 months). 2) Basic neu­ro­log­i­cal abil­i­ties in 60–90 year olds that are direct­ly sub­ject to train­ing (for exam­ple, pro­cess­ing accu­ra­cy or pro­cess­ing speed) can be improved to the per­for­mance lev­el of the aver­age 20 or 30 or 40 year old through 3–10 hours of train­ing at that spe­cif­ic abil­i­ty. 3) Improve­ments gen­er­al­ize to broad­er cog­ni­tive mea­sures, and to indices of qual­i­ty of life. 4) Improve­ments are sus­tained over time (in dif­fer­ent con­trolled stud­ies, doc­u­ment­ed at all post-train­ing bench­marks set between 3 to 72 months after train­ing completion).

In nor­mal old­er indi­vid­u­als, train­ing effects endure “ but that does not mean that they could not ben­e­fit from boost­er or refresh­er train­ing — or from ongo­ing train­ing designed to improve oth­er skills and abil­i­ties that lim­it their old­er lives. Impor­tant­ly, a lim­it­ed con­trolled study in mild­ly cog­ni­tive­ly impaired indi­vid­u­als showed that in con­trast to nor­mal indi­vid­u­als, their abil­i­ties declined in the post-train­ing epoch. These folks had improved sub­stan­tial­ly with train­ing. Even while there abil­i­ties slow­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ed after train­ing, they sus­tained their advan­tages over patients who were not trained. We believe that in these high­er-risk indi­vid­ual, con­tin­ued train­ing will prob­a­bly be absolute­ly nec­es­sary to sus­tain their brain health, and, if it can be achieved (and that is com­plete­ly unproven), to pro­tect them from a pro­gres­sion to AD. More­over, for both these high­er-risk and nor­mal indi­vid­u­als, inter­ven­tions should not be thought of as one-time cure-alls. Ongo­ing brain fit­ness train­ing shall be the way to go.

A major obsta­cle is that there is not enough research fund­ing for appro­pri­ate tri­als to address all of these issues, espe­cial­ly as they apply for the mild­ly cog­ni­tive­ly impaired (pre-AD) or the AD pop­u­la­tions. We’d wel­come not only more research dol­lars but also more FDA involve­ment, to help clar­i­fy the claims being made.

Next Gen­er­a­tion Assessments

A key ele­ment for the matu­ri­ty of the field will be the wide­spread use of objec­tive assess­ments. What do you see in that area?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, most researchers and pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives are still wed­ded to rel­a­tive­ly rudi­men­ta­ry assess­ments. For exam­ple, I recent­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in meet­ings designed to help define a very-well-sup­port­ed EU ini­tia­tive on how cog­ni­tive sci­ence can con­tribute to drug devel­op­ment, in which most applied assess­ments and most assess­ments devel­op­ment were still paper-based. This is a major missed oppor­tu­ni­ty, giv­en the rapid­ly grow­ing devel­op­ment and avail­abil­i­ty of auto­mat­ed assessments.

I believe we will see more inde­pen­dent assess­ments but also embed­ded assess­ments. For instance, in Sci­en­tif­ic Learn­ing we rou­tine­ly use ongo­ing embed­ded assess­ments and cross-ref­er­enced state test achieve­ment scores to devel­op mod­els and pro­files designed to deter­mine the regimes of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty-based train­ing pro­grams that must be applied so that indi­vid­ual stu­dents, school sites and school dis­tricts may achieve their aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance goals.

Impli­ca­tions for Med­i­cine and Men­tal Health

It seems clear that neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty-relat­ed assess­ment and train­ing tools will impact med­i­cine and men­tal health. Where and how do you think that may hap­pen first?

This may sur­prise peo­ple who haven’t been fol­low­ing the area close­ly, but I believe cog­ni­tive train­ing may well become a cru­cial part of the stan­dard of care in schiz­o­phre­nia over the next 3 or 4 years. With aca­d­e­m­ic part­ners at UCSF, Yale and Kon­stanz Uni­ver­si­ty, and through the devel­op­ment of pro­grams that effec­tive­ly address cog­ni­tive deficits that lim­it this patient pop­u­la­tion, we have already designed a train­ing pro­gram that is appro­pri­ate for eval­u­a­tion in a med­ical-device-direct­ed FDA tri­al. There is already agree­ment about the appli­ca­tion of the MATRICS neu­rocog­ni­tive assess­ment bat­tery for an FDA out­comes tri­al in this pop­u­la­tion, and NovaV­i­sion’s FDA approval of their stroke & TBI rehab strate­gies pro­vide any impor­tant FDA precedent.

The NIH has been a key enabler of the NIH Tool­box, and the MATRICS process, both to stan­dard­ize assess­ments. What impact may these have in schiz­o­phre­nia and beyond?

The FDA’s adop­tion of MATRICS as a stan­dard is a cru­cial step, because it pro­vides a clear set of bench­marks that apply for any drug or non-drug approach to treat­ment. We would like to see the FDA estab­lish sim­i­lar bench­marks for all major clin­i­cal indi­ca­tions in neu­ro­log­i­cal and psy­chi­atric med­i­cine. I haven’t fol­lowed the Tool­Box so close­ly, and can’t real­ly com­ment about its pos­si­ble utility.

If we talk about wider clin­i­cal prac­tice, we must rec­og­nize that many psy­chol­o­gists are attached to old­er forms of ther­a­py that don’t incor­po­rate con­tem­po­rary cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science find­ings, and that neu­rol­o­gists and psy­chi­a­trists are strong­ly phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal­ly ori­ent­ed, and in any event are great­ly pressed for time. Per­haps clin­i­cal prac­tice will only change once we have devel­oped the tools nec­es­sary to help pro­fes­sion­als mon­i­tor the brain func­tion and train­ing (treat­ment) sta­tus of the very large num­ber of patients that might typ­i­cal­ly be under their care.

Inte­grat­ing Cog­ni­tion with Home Health and Med­ical Home Models

That’s a very inter­est­ing point. How may remote mon­i­tor­ing and inter­ven­tions hap­pen? Is this sim­i­lar to the mod­el Cogmed uses today to deliv­er its work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing via a net­work of clinicians?

We will prob­a­bly see hybrid mod­els emerge first. The clin­i­cian will, as usu­al, estab­lish a diag­no­sis and ini­ti­ate treat­ment in their office or clin­ic, prob­a­bly with the assis­tance of a trained ther­a­pist. At some point, the ther­a­py will con­tin­ue at home. The ther­a­pist and the super­vis­ing clin­i­cian would be able to remote­ly mon­i­tor the patien­t’s per­for­mance by the use of our Inter­net tools. This mod­el, orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped and wide­ly applied by Sci­en­tif­ic Learn­ing, has also been employed by Cogmed.

Only lat­er may full telemed­i­cine mod­els emerge, where per­haps a neu­rol­o­gist mon­i­tors the brain func­tion of sev­er­al patients using appro­pri­ate tools, and iden­ti­fies poten­tial per­son­al­ized pre­ven­tive inter­ven­tions with red flags that call for an office (or vir­tu­al) visit.

What’s Next?

This has been a fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion, and a great con­text to the themes we will cov­er in depth in the sum­mit. What else do you think will hap­pen over the next few years?

First, I believe we’ll need to focus on pub­lic edu­ca­tion, for peo­ple to under­stand the val­ue of tools with lim­it­ed face val­ue. One impor­tant aspect of this is the need to find bal­ance between what is fun and what has val­ue as a cog­ni­tive enhancer “ which requires the activ­i­ties to be very tar­get­ed, repet­i­tive and slow­ly pro­gres­sive. Not always the most fun “ peo­ple need to think fit­ness as much or more than games.

Sec­ond, I believe the role of pro­vid­ing super­vi­sion, coach­ing, sup­port, will emerge to be a crit­i­cal one. Think about the need for hav­ing a piano teacher, if you want to learn how to play the piano and improve over  time. Tech­nol­o­gy may help fill this role, or empow­er and rich­ly sup­port real coach­es who do so.

Which exist­ing pro­fes­sion­al group is more like­ly to become the per­son­al brain train­ers of the future? or will we see a new pro­fes­sion emerge?

Frankly, I don’t know. To give you some con­text, at Sci­en­tif­ic Learn­ing we exper­i­ment­ed with offer­ing free access to ther­a­pists for a 2‑month train­ing. At Posit Sci­ence we first exper­i­ment­ed with vir­tu­al coach­es that many peo­ple seemed to hate, and lat­er encour­aged peo­ple who had com­plet­ed the pro­gram to vol­un­teer and coach new par­tic­i­pants. Results were mixed. We’re now explor­ing oth­er possibilities.

Let me men­tion a few oth­er aspects. I believe we will also see a grow­ing num­ber of appli­ca­tions in lan­guages oth­er than Eng­lish, which will be key giv­en grow­ing inter­est in South Korea, Japan and Chi­na on aging work­force issues (until now they have been most­ly focused on child­hood devel­op­ment, using Eng­lish-based pro­grams). We will also see the pro­grams wide­ly avail­able to peo­ple who may not have com­put­ers at home. For exam­ple, Posit Sci­ence recent­ly donat­ed soft­ware equiv­a­lent in val­ue to $1m to the Mass­a­chu­setts pub­lic library sys­tem, as a mod­el of how wider access (in this case, to help old­er dri­vers) might be provided.

My dream in all of this is to have stan­dard­ized and cred­i­ble tools to train the 5–6 main neu­rocog­ni­tive domains for cog­ni­tive health and per­for­mance through life, cou­pled with the right assess­ments to iden­ti­fy one’s indi­vid­ual needs and mea­sure progress. For exam­ple, I’d like to know what the 10 things are that I need to fix, and where to start. Assess­ments could either mea­sure the phys­i­cal sta­tus of the brain, such as the degree of myeli­na­tion, or mea­sure func­tions over time via auto­mat­ed neu­ropsych assess­ments, which is prob­a­bly going to be more effi­cient and scal­able and poten­tial­ly be self-admin­is­tered in a home health model.

Mike, thank you very much once more for your time and insights.

My plea­sure. I am look­ing for­ward to the very inno­v­a­tive Sum­mit that Sharp­Brains is putting togeth­er to con­vene our lit­tle grow­ing community.


  1. Dr. M. A. Greenstein on December 25, 2009 at 8:45

    Thanks Alvaro and Dr. Merzenich for an enlight­en­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing inter­view! I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inspired by your dis­cus­sion re: ramp­ing up the con­ver­sa­tion from “Does it work?” to engag­ing folks in think­ing the myr­i­ad of pos­si­bil­i­ties opened up by encour­ag­ing neu­ro­science research, new forms of biotech assess­ment and an on the ground, whole sys­tem’s approach to ther­a­putic support.

    A thought: for those who have seen the new film “Avatar,” how ’bout we take more seri­ous­ly the excit­ing future of neu­rotech that will no doubt change the assess­ment game for how pol­i­cy mak­ers and the pub­lic regard brain fit­ness? Even Hol­ly­wood is address­ing the chang­ing ancient metaphor of “Know Thy­self,” with the likes of neu­rotech. Seems we’re in the midst of a Bacon­ian rev­o­lu­tion, as I sus­pect Dr. Merzenich might agree, and wait­ing to move to a new stage of Enlightenment!

    P.S. I’m galvinized to be in dis­cus­sion with those who wish to ener­gize the “ed-psych” meth­ods ques­tion of how to coach the brain injured. Look­ing for­ward to the Sharp­Brain’s Sum­mit in Jan 2010.

    Grate­ful­ly and synap­ti­cal­ly yours,

  2. Charles Pennison on December 26, 2009 at 9:02

    I also would like to thank Alvaro and Dr. Michael Merzenich for the great interview.

    As a lay­man who is inter­est­ed in main­tain­ing good brain func­tion as I age, I have had dif­fi­cul­ty in find­ing afford­able pro­grams that can be used at home and actu­al­ly work. Posit Sci­ence is the one com­pa­ny that gets men­tioned most often, espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing their dri­ving improve­ment software. 

    One of the prob­lems is that the sci­ence of brain func­tion is quick­ly evolv­ing. Anoth­er prob­lem is that it appears that just one activ­i­ty can be worked on at a time, rather than one pro­gram that can improve the entire range of brain func­tion activities. 

    Thanks for the open dis­cus­sions on this topic. 


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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