What is Brain fitness? What are Future Opportunities? Experts Answer.

What is brain fit­ness real­ly? What will hap­pen in terms of brain fit­ness inno­va­tion in the next decade? What’s the biggest challenge?

Who could answer these ques­tions bet­ter than the expert Sharp­Brains 2011 Sum­mit speak­ers? Dis­cov­er below the answers of 7 of them.

.1. How would you define “brain fit­ness” vs. “phys­i­cal fitness”?
Alvaro Pas­cual-Leone, Har­vard Med­ical School: Phys­i­cal fit­ness can refer to an over­all or gen­eral state of health and well-being. How­ever, it is also often used more specif­i­cally to refer to the abil­ity to per­form a giv­en activ­ity, occu­pa­tion, or sport. Sim­i­larly brain fit­ness might be used to refer to a gen­eral state of healthy, opti­mized brain func­tion, or a more spe­cific brain-based abil­ity to process cer­tain, spe­cific infor­ma­tion, enable cer­tain motor actions, or sup­port cer­tain cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. Impor­tantly though, I would argue that phys­i­cal fit­ness REQUIRES brain fit­ness, while brain fit­ness ben­e­fits from, but does not require phys­i­cal fitness.

Ken­neth Kosik, UC San­ta Bar­bara: The brain is sim­ply an organ in the body with all the health require­ments of any oth­er organ. There­fore, I am trou­bled by the “ver­sus” in your ques­tion. Why set up an unnec­es­sary dual­ism? I can see the point of talk­ing about two his­tor­i­cal move­ments, but would rather dis­cuss how they com­ple­ment each other.

Bev­erly San­born, Bel­mont Senior Liv­ing: Brain fit­ness and phys­i­cal fit­ness are inter­linked. Each enhances the oth­er and both are essen­tial com­po­nents of suc­cess­ful aging. As we age, the abil­ity to cope with inex­orable chal­lenge to social-emo­tion­al-eco­nom­ic well-being is root­ed in hav­ing a high lev­el of men­tal alert­ness and a phys­i­cal body that func­tions effi­ciently. But fit­ness is not just a hap­py con­se­quence of a hardy gene pool. Fit­ness for both brain and brawn requires a com­mit­ted effort, a lot of stretch and sweat, and the con­stant push to reach beyond the com­fort zone.

Ken Gib­son, Learn­ingRx: If phys­i­cal fit­ness is the “abil­ity to func­tion effi­ciently and effec­tively with­out injury, to enjoy leisure, to be healthy, to resist dis­ease, and to cope with emer­gency sit­u­a­tions” then brain fit­ness is the abil­ity to men­tally func­tion effi­ciently and effec­tively at work, play, or leisure, to be sharp, to resist men­tal dis­ease, and to cope with men­tally demand­ing sit­u­a­tions. Com­po­nents of brain fit­ness include cog­ni­tive skills need­ed for fast, easy, and bet­ter learn­ing or work per­for­mance such as: atten­tion, work­ing and short term mem­ory, pro­cess­ing speed, log­ic and rea­son­ing, and audi­tory and visu­al pro­cess­ing. The rel­a­tive impor­tance of each of the com­po­nents varies for each task a per­son performs.

Kather­ine Sul­li­van, Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter: In our con­text (help­ing active duty ser­vice mem­bers and vet­er­ans recov­er from cog­ni­tive dys­func­tion most asso­ci­ated with trau­matic brain injury), I’d say brain fit­ness is the out­come we work towards: the cog­ni­tive resources required to return to duty or rein­te­grate into dai­ly and pro­fes­sional lives as much as pos­si­ble. In this sense, it’s relat­ed to the phys­i­cal health of the brain but has men­tal ele­ments as well. As far as the rela­tion­ship between the two, I’m in an unusu­al posi­tion, hav­ing the hon­or to work with some of the most phys­i­cally fit men and women in our coun­try, who also have the self-dis­ci­pline to ded­i­cate them­selves towards over­com­ing longer-term challenges.

Peter Kissinger, AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safe­ty: I would say that brain fit­ness is a sub­set of phys­i­cal fit­ness, and also, that brain fit­ness is quite anal­o­gous to the tra­di­tional def­i­n­i­tion of phys­i­cal health.  Use it or lose it applies to both.

Nathanael Eisen­berg, Cog­niFit: To the extent that body fit­ness or phys­i­cal fit­ness can be main­tained or improved by phys­i­cal exer­cise of motor mus­cles, sim­i­larly, the term brain fit­ness, as it is used today, mir­rors that cere­bral health (cog­ni­tive, emo­tional, bio­log­i­cal) might be main­tained or improved by exer­cise of dif­fer­ent kinds, both phys­i­cal AND cognitive.

Lisa Schooner­man, vibrant­Brains: Brain fit­ness is like phys­i­cal fit­ness in that it is tar­get­ing a part of one’s body with the aim of improv­ing and main­tain­ing a desired lev­el of func­tion. Brain fit­ness is a bit more elu­sive than phys­i­cal fit­ness in that it can­not be assessed visu­al­ly, how­ev­er as sci­en­tif­ic ways of assess­ing cog­ni­tive func­tions improves, and as more data is gath­ered for peo­ple who have main­tained brain-healthy lifestyles vis a vis rates of demen­tia or abil­i­ty to live inde­pen­dent­ly, the many ben­e­fits of brain fit­ness will be more and more clear. 


2. Where do you see a sig­nif­i­cant oppor­tu­nity for brain fit­ness inno­va­tion to improve the lives of a large num­ber of peo­ple in the next decade?

Alvaro Pas­cual-Leone, Har­vard Med­ical School: A) Edu­ca­tion; B) Access to sup­port; C) Indi­vid­u­al­ly-tai­lored pro­grams that can be tru­ly deployed as ther­a­pies and can be appro­pri­ately mon­i­tored in their efficacy.

Ken­neth Kosik, UC San­ta Bar­bara: These pro­grams could reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s dis­ease. Rig­or­ous stud­ies are need­ed to val­i­date this hypothesis.

Bev­erly San­born, Bel­mont Senior Liv­ing: As research defines with greater speci­ficity the most effec­tive pro­to­col for main­tain­ing brain fit­ness (and thus delay­ing the onset of demen­tia), the most sig­nif­i­cant oppor­tu­nity for inno­va­tion lies in how to com­mu­ni­cate this knowl­edge to the largest num­ber of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly to resource-poor, rur­al areas world­wide. Com­puter tech­nol­ogy and the media will be the locus of innovation.

Ken Gib­son, Learn­ingRx: Because brain fit­ness doesn’t require the space and equip­ment of phys­i­cal fit­ness it can become parts of many venues (insur­ance pro­grams, total fit­ness cen­ters – brain and phys­i­cal, school and job train­ing pro­grams, etc). We believe a major shift will be made in cog­ni­tive rehab – from accom­mo­dat­ing cog­ni­tive weak­ness to train­ing skills.

Kather­ine Sul­li­van, Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter: To help us reach many more peo­ple who need cog­ni­tive rehab, by automat­ing aspects both of the assess­ments and ther­a­pies we offer. We have seen that com­put­er­ized pro­grams can great­ly com­ple­ment our in-cen­ter work, deliv­er­ing a true con­tin­uum of care in a cost-effi­cient man­ner — we can, for exam­ple, assign and mon­i­tor “train­ing home­work” in a way we couldn’t before. Com­put­er-train­ing can help pro­vide the intense dosage required for real change while the ther­a­pist can focus on com­pen­satory strate­gies, cop­ing mech­a­nisms, and the trans­la­tion of ther­a­peu­tic goals to real-world outcomes.

Peter Kissinger, AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safe­ty: Extend­ing the safe dri­ving expe­ri­ence for mil­lions of old­er dri­vers across the globe.

Nathanael Eisen­berg, Cog­niFit: The aging pop­u­la­tion, men­tal health needs and chang­ing socio-eco­nom­ic real­i­ties will demand sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tion and appli­ca­tions in the next decade to improve life­long qual­ity of life and pro­duc­tiv­ity. It will be key to to make cog­ni­tive train­ing enjoy­able and fun while improv­ing con­sumers’ cog­ni­tive reserve in tar­geted ways.

Lisa Schooner­man, vibrant­Brains: Oppor­tu­ni­ties exist across the board but I think the most sig­nif­i­cant lie at either end of the life cycle. As we age, brain fit­ness can improve the lives of seniors by poten­tial­ly delay­ing demen­tia symp­toms, and help­ing peo­ple liv­ing suc­cess­ful, inde­pen­dent lives for longer. This will result in hap­pi­er peo­ple and fam­i­lies as well as sig­nif­i­cant sav­ings in health­care costs. On the oth­er side of the spec­trum, oppor­tu­ni­ties for chil­dren to over­come learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for edu­ca­tors to teach more effec­tive­ly can offer tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ties for the future. 


3. What is the one big chal­lenge to the innovation?

Alvaro Pas­cual-Leone, Har­vard Med­ical School: The estab­lish­ment of a reli­able screen­ing test to assess indi­vid­ual brain health that might be used to opti­mize inter­ven­tions and assess their efficacy.

Ken­neth Kosik, UC San­ta Bar­bara: The chal­lenge is lay­ing the research ground­work that will put brain fit­ness on a firm sci­en­tific basis.

Bev­erly San­born, Bel­mont Senior Liv­ing: Research mon­ey needs to eval­u­ate tech­no­log­i­cal, media, and train­ing pro­to­col in the con­text of effec­tive, low-cost, prac­ti­cal pro­grams for home use. This research should address best prac­tices that trans­late research find­ings into brain and body fit­ness programs.

Ken Gib­son, Learn­ingRx: Where­as phys­i­cal fit­ness can result in seen phys­i­cal changes or func­tions (weight loss, larg­er mus­cles, run longer, more ener­gy, etc) brain fit­ness results in hard­er to define results – that con­nec­tion will have to be made convincingly.

Kather­ine Sul­li­van, Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter: I see two main chal­lenges fac­ing brain-fit­ness pro­grams in the reha­bil­i­ta­tion world: Clin­i­cal accep­tance lead­ing to insur­ance cov­er­age for its use in ther­apy, and the over­all abil­ity of cog­ni­tive rehab spe­cial­ist to embrace com­puter pro­grams. It is impor­tant that brain-fit­ness inno­va­tion be viewed as an adjunct and com­pli­ment to the ser­vices ther­a­pists pro­vide, and not as a replace­ment of the indi­vid­ual therapist.

Peter Kissinger, AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safe­ty: Pro­mot­ing and mar­ket­ing the brain train­ing tools, rec­og­niz­ing it will be com­pet­ing with an enor­mous amount of infor­ma­tion bom­bard­ing all individuals.

Nathanael Eisen­berg, Cog­niFit: Chang­ing con­sumers’ habits towards brain health, to make them more proac­tive and per­son­ally relevant.

Lisa Schooner­man, vibrant­Brains: Time: time for peo­ple to incor­po­rate brain fit­ness into their lives, time for researchers to study and pub­lish the pos­i­tive effects, time for our health­care sys­tems to adopt and fund such activ­i­ties, and time for peo­ple to real­ize that how they think is as impor­tant as how they look.


4. What are your main activ­i­ties in the field and where can peo­ple learn more?

  • Alvaro Pas­cual-Leone, Direc­tor of the Beren­son-Allen Cen­ter for Non-Inva­sive Brain Stim­u­la­tion at Har­vard Med­ical School.

Con­duct­ing research, clin­i­cal pro­grams, devel­op­ing edu­ca­tional pro­grams. Our main web­site is: Beren­son-Allen Cen­ter for Non-Inva­sive Brain Stim­u­la­tion.

  • Ken­neth Kosik, co-Direc­tor of UCSB Neu­ro­science Research Insti­tute,  Founder Cog­ni­tive Fit­ness and Inno­v­a­tive Ther­a­pies (CFIT).

I’d sug­gest check­ing out my recent book The Alzheimer’s Solu­tion: How Today’s Care is Fail­ing Mil­lions and How We Can Do Bet­ter, and the web­site for CFIT.

  • Bev­erly San­born, Vice Pres­i­dent of Pro­gram Devel­op­ment at Bel­mont Senior Living.

Bel­mont Vil­lage pro­vides inde­pen­dent liv­ing, assist­ed liv­ing and demen­tia care in 19 set­tings through­out Cal­i­for­nia, Chica­go, and the south­ern Unit­ed States. We have devel­oped a range of pro­grams that trans­late research into brain fit­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties for res­i­dents at all lev­els of abil­ity: from no dis­cern­able mem­ory loss to late stage demen­tia. Ours is a ther­a­peu­tic, inte­grated, Just Right Chal­lenge approach that encom­passes a mix of cog­ni­tive, cre­ative and phys­i­cal activ­i­ties offered dai­ly in struc­tured social groups. We are in the process of pilot-test­ing an eval­u­a­tion of these pro­grams, with plans to engage in a full-scale eval­u­a­tion using an exper­i­men­tal design. Please vis­it belmontvillage.com for more infor­ma­tion. We encour­age you to vis­it often, as our site will be expand­ing dur­ing the year.

  • Ken Gib­son, Pres­i­dent of LearningRx.

We’re grow­ing a net­work of phys­i­cal loca­tions (cur­rently there are 71 Learn­ingRx Brain Train­ing Cen­ters, most­ly help­ing kids with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties), expand­ing online activ­i­ties,  and look­ing for inde­pen­dent research val­i­da­tion of our most­ly inter­nal tri­als (we have over 15,000 stu­dent records with over 20 pre/post train­ing test results – WJ3 Cog & Ach – and over 100 Hx Dx data field – all avail­able to researchers). Our main web­site is: Learn­ingRx.

  • Kather­ine Sul­li­van, Direc­tor of the Brain Fit­ness Cen­ter at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Center.

I am cur­rently work­ing for the Defense and Vet­er­ans Brain Injury; for more infor­ma­tion, they have this excel­lent web­site. We have cre­ated a Brain Fit­ness Cen­ter (BFC) inside the Mil­i­tary Advanced Train­ing Cen­ter at Wal­ter Reed, as an adjunct to exist­ing cog­ni­tive treat­ment ser­vices in speech pathol­ogy and occu­pa­tional ther­apy. You can learn more about the BFC here and here.

  • Peter Kissinger, Pres­i­dent of the AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safety.

Peo­ple can learn more about the AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safe­ty here and about the inno­v­a­tive dri­ving safe­ty ini­tia­tive here.

  • Nathanael Eisen­berg, CEO of CogniFit.

We have ini­tia­tives and busi­ness rela­tion­ships with a diverse group of part­ners rang­ing from direct to con­sumers offer­ing to health provider, physi­cians, men­tal health asso­ci­a­tion, dri­ving schools and insur­ance com­pa­nies. Peo­ple can learn more at: Cog­niFit. Also, SharpBrains.com just pub­lished a nice arti­cle on a recent study based on one of our prod­ucts to see whether Cog­ni­tive Train­ing Can Improve Phys­i­cal Fit­ness.

  • Lisa Schooner­man, co-Founder of vibrantBrains

vibraint­Brains’ main activ­i­ty is to main­stream the con­cept and prac­tice of brain fit­ness; unfor­tu­nate­ly many ques­tions of best imple­men­ta­tion meth­ods remain and our next steps are to regroup and try to find finan­cial­ly viable answers. More infor­ma­tion can be found at www.vibrantBrains.com.

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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