April 15, 2006
Technology Review
Emily Singer

At a retirement community in San Francisco, a 71-year-old woman is having her brain trained. She sits at a computer, poised to react to a sequence of sounds, like “baa, tack, tab, cat.” As she hears them, she clicks on the written equiva­lents on the computer screen. As her speed and accuracy improve, the sounds come faster, the sequences grow longer. The process, researchers say, could give her more years of auditory acuity.

Procedures like this one are a step toward realizing a radical vision: stopping, or at least forestalling, cognitive decline using interactive technologies. It’s the vision that animates the work of Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist and cofounder of Posit Science in San Francisco, which is developing what he calls a brain fitness program — a set of interactive training exercises for the mind. “If you haven’t played violin seriously for 10 years, you could recover your mastery with intensive practice,” says Merzenich, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “That’s what we’re trying to achieve with training.”

The auditory-skill software program for elderly patients is Posit’s first project and has just reached the market. Researchers at Posit are now developing similar technologies to sharpen visual perception and fine motor control and envision additional ones to aid problem solving and balance. While other cognitive training programs focus on things like memory exercises, Posit’s program exploits the concept of plasticity — our brain cells’ ability to form new connections as we observe the world around us. “Merzenich has been a leader in the neuroscience of neural plasticity,” says Charles Decarli, a neurologist at the University of California, Davis, who is running clinical trials of the program. “Now he’s translating that basic science into this technology.”

Last fall, Merzenich’s team announced promising results from a preliminary clinical trial of 95 people with an average age of 80. After 40 hours of training over eight weeks, half the participants gained ten years in memory, meaning 80-year-olds had memories as sharp as 70-year-olds. Posit is now testing the auditory program on middle-aged people and Alzheimer’s patents to see if it will have the same benefits it did for healthy octogenarians. It expects preliminary results this spring.

Posit is one of several companies developing cognitive training programs. But Jeffrey W. Elias, a health science administrator at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, MD, cautions that scientists still need to show that cognitive training in a particular task — such as listening to and remembering a sequence of sounds — can improve a person’s ability to engage in daily activities in the real world. Still, “the potential is significant,” he says.