Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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 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, 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

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