The science of brain training continues to advance at breakneck speed. And BrainHQ is at the forefront of this research – both through the studies that we lead ourselves to advance our understanding of what BrainHQ can do, and in the studies led by independent academic collaborators from all over the world who choose BrainHQ in their work.
As the CEO of Posit Science, I’m excited to see new ways that BrainHQ is being put to work to help people. And as a neuroscientist who trained with Posit Science co-founder Dr. Michael Merzenich, the discoverer of lifelong brain plasticity, I’m excited to see new discoveries about how brain plasticity works. So I thought I’d share with you some of the scientific developments that I found most exciting in 2021:
Traumatic Brain Injury
Can BrainHQ help people with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)? The Department of Defense asked Posit Science this question, and funded the BRAVE study – the first clinical trial designed to meet the American Academy of Neurology’s most careful standards for a study of a computerized cognitive training program in TBI. I served as a principal investigator on this trial, and was fortunate to be joined by leading scientists from five military hospitals and Veterans Affairs medical centers from around the country. Concussions – often called “mild” TBIs (even though there’s nothing mild about them) have been called the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, because of the common use of roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices. More than 400,000 servicemembers and Veterans returned from those conflicts with one (or often many more) mTBIs. Many of those individuals had long-lasting cognitive effects, reporting difficulties with attention, working memory, and thinking that interfered with them returning to work or serving in their families and communities.
Participants in the BRAVE study were diagnosed with cognitive impairment and a history of mTBI (on the average, about seven years before the study), and were randomly assigned to either BrainHQ exercises or ordinary computer games (as a comparison group). Participants trained in their own homes with remote supervision by a trained coach from their hospital or VA Medical Center.
The results were clear and dramatic. Participants who used BrainHQ made large gains in cognitive performance – four times bigger than those doing ordinary computer games. And those benefits held up when they were measured again, three months after the completion of training.
These results were complemented and extended by a second study in TBI, published by Dr. Gerald Voelbel of New York University. This study involved people with mild, moderate, and severe TBIs, again randomized into a BrainHQ group and a comparison group. This study showed substantial cognitive performance improvements in the BrainHQ group, and also showed improvements in standard self-report measures of their own cognitive abilities in everyday tasks.
Together, these two studies show the promise of brain plasticity for people who have suffered from brain injuries.
Those are the highlights of 2021 for me as a neuroscientist and as a person committed to advancing the science of BrainHQ. Even with this very long blog post, I’ve only scratched the surface of what was published last year. There’s even more going on this year! I’m glad you’re on this journey with BrainHQ.
Brain Training in a Multimodal Approach
There has been an explosion of interest in using BrainHQ as part of multimodal brain health programs that include a number of approaches thought to contribute to brain health.
One particularly interesting program is HABIT, developed by Dr. Glenn Smith while at the Mayo Clinic and further refined by Dr. Smith and his collaborators at the University of Florida. HABIT is a boot camp for people newly diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and their family members. Participants attend an in-person camp for two weeks, with five hours of training per day, including BrainHQ, memory compensation training (focused on using a calendar and notebook), yoga, peer support, and wellness advice. After the two-week camp, they return to their homes with the ability to continue these brain healthy activities.
The HABIT group conducted a series of very clever studies to evaluate the contributions of the various components. At different times and different places, they offered the HABIT course without one of the interventions. By comparing the results of removing an intervention, they could determine which interventions contributed to which benefits. In one analysis, the researchers found that removing BrainHQ, calendar training, or yoga each led to overall functional declines – showing that each makes a contribution to maintain functional abilities in people with MCI. And in a second analysis, they found that removing BrainHQ led to declines in cognitive function (measured by attention, and reaction time – a cognitive and movement skill) – but removing yoga did not. This was surprising – although the researchers expected that BrainHQ was an important contributor to the cognitive benefits of HABIT, they also expected that yoga (as a form of physical exercise) would improve cognitive function in general and movement skills in particular – but it didn’t.
If you’d like to join a HABIT course, please contact the HABIT team at 352-265-0294 or at HabitProgram@mayo.edu – more and more universities are now offering the HABIT program in-person and virtually – and Posit Science is happy to be supporting the growth of this important program.
In another study related to multimodal brain health programs, Dr. Jerri Edwards and colleagues at the University of South Florida compared three training programs: 1) BrainHQ, 2) a novel cognitive/motor training system based on BrainHQ exercises called TUCK, and 3) ordinary computer games. TUCK used computer-controlled LED lights mounted on a frame, which required participants to stand, move, and reach to do the cognitive tasks. The researchers evaluated participants’ performance on a cognitive test, as well as a number of movement-related functions, with the hypothesis that the TUCK system (where participants needed to move around) would improve the movement-related measures more than BrainHQ (where participants sat in front of a computer). Contrary to their hypothesis, BrainHQ improved key movement measures – including the number of steps a person takes to get up and make a full 360 degree turn of their body, and measures of walking asymmetry and the amount of time a person’s foot made contact with the ground – while the TUCK system did not. This came as a surprise to the researchers – and suggests that the comprehensive nature of the BrainHQ exercises is effective at improving key measures of mobility and balance, all while seated in front of a computer.
Finally, in another study related to multimodal approaches to brain health, researchers at the Baycrest Health Sciences Centre in Toronto compared BrainHQ to learning a language using DuoLingo – with the hypothesis that language learning was a form of cognitive training. We often recommend intensive, repetitive, and progressively challenging activities, as good for brain health, including, activities as diverse as learning a new language, a new musical instrument, or a new yoga exercise. The researchers in this study used a set of executive function measures we expected would favor language learning (and they also accepted financial support from the DuoLingo company). Nonetheless, their results showed that BrainHQ improved twice as many measures of executive function as language learning did. The researchers expressed surprise at their own findings – and spun the results in their narrative and a press release as favoring language learning – but their own data tells a different story.
And, this is why we do science – results from trials can surprise us and drive new learning! In some cases, BrainHQ drove strong results as part of multimodal brain health programs, and in other studies was shown to be superior to some other approaches. Either way, we’re happy to see the science of brain training advance.
Want to learn more about brain healthy activities outside of BrainHQ? Email us to get our free BrainHQ Guide to Brain Health – packed full of the latest science about how exercise, diet/nutrition, and other activities can help – along with BrainHQ – to build your brain health.
More exciting results from these kinds of multimodal brain health programs will be coming in the years to come. At Posit Science, we’re delighted that BrainHQ has been chosen as the cognitive training component of six international studies – referred to as the Worldwide FINGER studies – that are coordinating to evaluate brain health programs involving cognitive training, physical exercise, and diet/nutrition. BrainHQ is being made available in Spanish and Portuguese to the Latin America (LatAm) FINGER study, in Japanese to the J-MINT study, in Dutch to the FINGER-NL study, and in English to the US POINTER study, the Australian AU-ARROW study and the Irish BRAIN-DIABETES trial. We’re happy to see this science advancing – and happy to be reaching people all over the world with BrainHQ.
Did you know BrainHQ is now available in 12 languages? Learn how to change your language choice here. If you have a friend or family member who wants to train in their native language, they can use BrainHQ in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, Dutch, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Hebrew, or Arabic.
Moving from helping generally healthy brains stay sharp to helping brains that are in significant need of help, several studies published data about BrainHQ and severe mental illness. Dr. Rachel Loewy (UCSF) and Dr. Sophia Vinogradov (University of Minnesota) and their colleagues published a landmark study showing that BrainHQ improved cognitive function in people with recent-onset schizophrenia compared to a computer games control group, and that the gains were sustained six months after completing training. This is an exciting result – reaching people when they are first afflicted with schizophrenia may be the most productive time to engage them with treatments because their brains may be more plastic – more able to change – at the earlier stages of the disease than at the later stages. In a related study, researchers found that greater volume in specific brain areas predicted the ability of individual people with schizophrenia to benefit from BrainHQ training.
Finally, most BrainHQ studies use BrainHQ as a cognitive training program – which makes sense, we built BrainHQ to improve cognitive function. But over the past few years, we’ve begun to build a novel set of cognitive assessments in BrainHQ – novel ways for people to measure their own cognitive performance with sensitivity and accuracy. A first study validating the use of these assessments was published by researchers at the University of Minnesota in close collaboration with Posit Science. One fun aspect of the study is that many of the participants used the assessments at the Minnesota State Fair – the second largest state fair in America. This allowed the researchers to evaluate the assessments in a broader group of people than is often done (college students are the second most commonly studied subject in science, right after the lab rat). The study showed that these assessments were straightforward to learn and use by participants, and showed good assessment properties. We’re actively working on this technology because we believe that every person should have access to reliable and easy-to-use ways to check in on their brain performance.