On January 2010 I attended the first global and virtual SharpBrains Summit, a 3-day online conference where 250+ professionals in 16 countries discussed the current state of brain fitness research, technology and the market.
I appreciate that SharpBrains CEO Alvaro Fernandez invited me to the Summit; I found it very stimulating, and learned a lot about the future of brain fitness programs. In light of the Summit and the recent controversy over BBC's "Brain Training" Experiment and subsequent publication in Nature, I decided to have a conversation with Alvaro to share what SharpBrains is up to and the current state of the field. Here are my 10 questions for Alvaro.
1. S. Why SharpBrains?
A. Because there is a huge and growing gap between cognitive neuroscience and education/ training/ healthcare practice, and the time is ripe to bridge that gap given longer lives and the growing recognition of the role of cognition through life.
2. S. Why is a brain-healthy lifestyle so important?
A. Thanks to lifelong neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, our lifestyles and actions play a meaningful role in how our brains physically change.
There is no "general solution" to brain maintenance. A multi-pronged approach centered on nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise is recommended for better brain health [see more here].
Now, while the media is doing a great job at explaining why aerobic exercise is good for the brain, it is for the most part overlooking that mental exercise is as important - and that not all mental activity is equal. This is where things get complex, and interesting. Mental or brain exercise goes beyond mental activity. It is the structured use of cognitive exercises or techniques aimed at improving specific brain functions. Mental exercise (or brain training) can be delivered in a number of ways: meditation, cognitive therapy, neurofeedback, or cognitive training.
3. S. What are some current and future applications of brain fitness?
A. I encourage you and your readers to take a look at the Winners and Finalists in the 2010 Brain Fitness Innovation Awards to get a sense of the potential here. We're talking about safe and durable cognitive enhancement, side-effect free, that can make a difference in a variety of contexts along the lifecourse, from addressing learning difficulties to enhancing workplace productivity to lowering driving accident rates to helping delay cognitive decline as we get older.
The most useful framework is to think of physical fitness. Everyone understands the basic concepts and tools, but the appropriate intervention depends on starting point and goals - it is different to train to run a marathon than to play football than to simply maintain basic functionality for daily life.
4. S. Are there any brain training programs specifically designed to boost creativity? If so, what have the results showed?
A. Creativity is not at this point a well-defined and understood brain-based concept like working memory, speed-of-processing, self-regulation and other brain functions are, so there are no, to my knowledge, comparable science-based brain training interventions; we're still talking more about self-help. Now, where there is good evidence is on some typical obstacles/ bottlenecks that prevent creativity (such as anxiety) and good interventions (like heart rate variability biofeedback) to efficiently learn how to monitor and manage anxiety, which is very useful. Same with lack of attention, and interventions like meditation to build attention. In short, there's no brain training to train creativity directly (what exactly is the brain-based circuit for creativity?) but there is brain training to remove common obstacles (like anxiety, or lack of attention) which may enable creativity to happen with higher probability.
5. S. Do brain training software programs and "brain games" work? How generalizable are the cognitive improvements found using the software to the real world? What does the scientific research show?
A. It depends. There is little doubt that brain training CAN work, but also that not everything making "brain training" claims is actually brain training. "Training" is one thing, "games" is another. There certainly can be some overlap, but they are essentially different tools and motivations [see more here].
And yes, there are multiple cases of transfer when the training is well-designed and relevant to the task at hand. And here we can talk both computerized CBT and computerized cognitive training.
Another rationale for cognitive training is the maintenance of cognitive functions [see more here].
6. S. Are brain-training programs ‘one size fits all'?
A. Nope. There are no magic pills, but useful tools in our toolkits, so it is key to learn how to navigate options [see more here].
It makes little sense to "train your brain"...train your brain to do what? To enhance what capacity? Why is that capacity relevant to one's situation and goals? This is why we believe that computerized neurocognitive assessments are a critical component of the brain fitness puzzle, to help pinpoint people's needs and likely responses to interventions, to guide them in the right directions.
7. S. Were there any flaws in the methodology and interpretation of BBC's "Brain Test Britain" experiment?
Many...it really cannot be called a study of "brain training" [see more here; for a more scientific critique, see here].
8. S. One of the SharpBrain Virtual Summit participants, Dr. Michael Merzenich, predicts that there will soon be a move from drug-based pharmacological interventions to preventive programs and exercises to minimize cognitive decline. If Dr. merzenich's predictions are correct, how big do you think the implications will be for the health care industry? What are some advantages/disadvantages of brain fitness software over pharmacological approaches?
A. It's not one or the other - the mechanisms are complementary, bottom-up (drugs) vs. top down (brain training). The implications are huge especially when we take into account the Mental Health Parity Law and the growing emphasis on the continuum of care. It is excellent news that little by little we are starting to have evidence-based, scalable and efficient interventions that are also side-effect free so they can be of help much earlier than diagnose-dependant drugs [see more here].
9. S. Some of the Summit participants emphasized the need to conceptualize the brain as an ecosystem- operating within a mind/body/environment relay system. Do you think this is the most accurate way to think of the brain?
A. What I think is key is to think of the brain as a system with X equally important cognitive, emotional and self-regulation functions that can be assessed/ developed/ enhanced/ maintained through life. Less about symptoms and illness diagnostics, more about capacities.
10. S. Where can people go if they are interested in investigating further the cognitive fitness field?
A. We recently created this book and online resource.
Note: Readers who enjoyed this interview may also be interested in the Brain Fitness Innovation Award Winners [see here].
© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman