The Business and Ethics of the Brain Fitness Boom — Part 1: The Business

The recent dis­cov­ery that expe­ri­ence can change brain struc­ture and func­tion at any age has sparked numer­ous health, edu­ca­tion, and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty appli­ca­tions whose val­ue and lim­i­ta­tions we are only start­ing to grasp.

Brain fit­ness has quick­ly become a main­stream aspi­ra­tion among baby boomers and elders, pri­mar­i­ly in North Amer­i­ca. It has fueled a grow­ing inter­est in brain fit­ness class­es, brain fit­ness cen­ters, and brain fit­ness pro­grams, along with atten­dant oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges. An increas­ing num­ber of adults want use­ful tools to pro­tect cog­ni­tive health and performance—not nec­es­sar­i­ly to reverse aging—and what they are find­ing is an expand­ing and noisy mar­ket­place where they (and also pro­fes­sion­als) need to care­ful­ly eval­u­ate their own needs and the avail­able options (Fer­nan­dez and Gold­berg, 2009). The recent dis­cov­ery that expe­ri­ence can change brain struc­ture and func­tion at any age has inspired a range of health, edu­ca­tion, and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty appli­ca­tions whose val­ue and lim­i­ta­tions we are only start­ing to grasp. If you can envi­sion the array of equip­ment avail­able to train dif­fer­ent mus­cles in a typ­i­cal mod­ern health club, you can antic­i­pate the value—and per­haps the limitations—of hav­ing an expand­ing toolk­it to mea­sure and enhance cog­ni­tion and men­tal well­ness. The bur­geon­ing brain fit­ness indus­try needs to define and refine itself, to mature, before it can be as estab­lished as today’s phys­i­cal fit­ness industry.

The good news is that adults of all ages are pay­ing more atten­tion to the impact of lifestyle options on cog­ni­tive health, and that there are more tools avail­able than ever before to assess, mon­i­tor, and enhance a vari­ety of cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al, and self-reg­u­la­tion skills. The bad news is that there is no mag­ic pill and that, as often hap­pens in emerg­ing markets,the over­whelm­ing amount of super­fi­cial media cov­er­age and hyped mar­ket­ing claims are pro­vok­ing con­sumer con­fu­sion and skep­ti­cism among researchers and professionals.

The Busi­ness of Brain Fitness

First, some per­spec­tive. I esti­mate that the size of the world­wide dig­i­tal brain fit­ness soft­ware mar­ket (defined as auto­mat­ed appli­ca­tions that help assess, enhance, or repair tar­get­ed brain func­tions) in 2009 was $295 mil­lion, rep­re­sent­ing an annu­al­ized growth rate of 31 per­cent since 2005 (Fer­nan­dez, 2010). Around half of that amount, or $148 mil­lion, was spent by U.S.-based buyers.

Com­pare this to oth­er fit­ness mar­ket seg­ments: in 2007, Amer­i­can con­sumers bought $3 bil­lion worth of tread­mills, and in 2009, Amer­i­can health club mem­ber­ships amount­ed to $19.5 bil­lion. Off-label drug pre­scrip­tion rev­enues in the Unit­ed States alone exceed $10 bil­lion per year, and the cur­rent esti­mate for the North America’s vit­a­mins, min­er­als, and sup­ple­ments mar­ket is $17.7 billion.

The brain fit­ness soft­ware indus­try is only in its infan­cy; it is an emerg­ing and large­ly unreg­u­lat­ed mar­ket where many prod­ucts have lim­it­ed clin­i­cal val­i­da­tion and often present con­fus­ing claims that make it dif­fi­cult for con­sumers to sep­a­rate wheat from chaff. If this is the case, can we expect this industry’s sig­nif­i­cant and con­tin­ued growth in the fore­see­able future?

Demand dri­ves supply

A grow­ing por­tion of the 78 mil­lion baby boomers in the Unit­ed States is invest­ing time and effort into retain­ing their men­tal sharp­ness. This moti­vates health­care and insur­ance providers to intro­duce and test inno­v­a­tive solu­tions in areas such as dri­ving safety.

The often unrec­og­nized role of brain fit­ness soft­ware is that it can serve as both an assess­ment and an enhance­ment tool, and data­base dri­ven cog­ni­tive care solu­tions have start­ed to become avail­able. At the same time, new com­mu­ni­ty-based mod­els for pre­ven­tive ser­vices have begun to pop up to help cus­tomers put all the puz­zle pieces togeth­er and nav­i­gate the over­whelm­ing array of research, prod­ucts, and claims.

Sci­ence and research dri­ve policy

There is accu­mu­lat­ing evi­dence that basic cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al, and self-reg­u­la­tion brain based capac­i­ties are more mal­leable than once thought and that lifestyle, non-inva­sive interventions,and inva­sive inter­ven­tions can all play a role in aug­ment­ing or main­tain­ing cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al health.

Major ini­tia­tives world­wide are start­ing to shift the over­all men­tal health dis­course from ill­ness and dis­ease to build­ing men­tal cap­i­tal and men­tal well-being through­out life.

The answer to the above ques­tion is a def­i­nite yes: brain fit­ness is here to stay. The next ques­tion is:  How do we har­ness this enthu­si­asm and ener­gy to cre­ate and sup­port a sus­tain­able and valu­able field?

To Be Continued…

  • Tomor­row Fri­day, Jan­u­ary 6th: Part 2 — The Ethics
  • Next Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 9th: Part 3 — The Real Need
  • Next Tues­day, Jan­u­ary 10th: Part 4 — The Future

You can track and dis­cuss each part as it becomes avail­able via my Twit­ter account, our Face­book pageLinkedIn group, and RSS feed. Enjoy, and please add your 2 cents!

Note: This is an excerpt from the Gen­er­a­tions arti­cle  The Busi­ness and Ethics of the Brain Fit­ness Boom, by Alvaro Fer­nan­dez. Copy­right © 2011 Amer­i­can Soci­ety on Aging; all rights reserved. This arti­cle may not be dupli­cat­ed, reprint­ed or dis­trib­uted in any form with­out writ­ten per­mis­sion from the pub­lish­er: Amer­i­can Soci­ety on Aging, 71 Steven­son St., Suite 1450, San Francisco,CA 94105–2938; e‑mail:

1 Comment

  1. Pagg on January 7, 2012 at 3:58

    very nice its great..thanks for sharing

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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