November 29, 2016
Financial Times
Staff Reporter

Flourishing industry focuses on science in attempt to shake off image of ‘snake oil salesmen’

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. What if you could delay the onset of dementia — not with a drug but by playing a video game?

Research published this summer suggests that it might not be such a fantasy after all. In a 10-year study of 2,800 patients, researchers found that those who played a specially designed video game nearly halved their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The game was subsequently acquired by US company Posit Science, which sells an updated version called Double Decision as part of its BrainHQ suite.

Players are asked to identify a string of objects in the centre and periphery of their vision at an ever-increasing speed. In theory, the game encourages the brain to process information more quickly over time. “Much like with physical exercise, when you exercise your brain in specific ways, you can make it stronger,” says Henry Mahncke, Posit Science chief executive.

Many people will think it sounds like junk science, and not without good reason. The research published this summer, known as the Active study, was one of the largest of its kind but most “brain training” games have not been subject to the rigorous testing that drugs and medical devices must undergo.

This year, Lumos Labs agreed to pay the US Fair Trade Commission $2m to settle false marketing allegations against its Lumosity brain-training game. The company had claimed that its games helped users to perform better at work and could even alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The FTC said Lumosity “simply did not have the science to back up its ads”.

Mr Mahncke believes the sector has been held back by products of dubious quality not underpinned by proper academic research. “This is a murky field, so we have to focus on high science,” he says. “Most folks build something that they hope will work and leave it at that.”

One way of improving the sector’s image is through the creation of tougher rules, he argues. “I believe appropriate regulation is important for the development of the field, because there are a lot of snake oil salesmen.”

Posit plans to submit the Active study to the US Food and Drug Administration to win approval to market its BrainHQ product for dementia.

The company also plans to provide separate research to support its intention to market to sufferers of “chemo brain”, which refers to memory loss that afflicts cancer patients after treatment.

Another company hoping to set itself apart from the bevy of questionable brain apps is Akili Interactive, a start-up founded by Boston-based Pure Tech, developing mobile video games to treat neurological conditions.

In July, the group secured $11.9m of funding from the venture capital arms of Amgen, the large US biotech group, and Merck, the German drugmaker, taking the total amount it has raised this year to more than $42m.

The company’s lead product, Project Evo, aims to train the brains of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by asking them to prioritise amid a blizzard of information.

“There is a consumer industry known as ‘brain training’ with a mix of semi- or unvalidated products that have come under scrutiny,” says Akili chief Eddie Martucci. “This is quite different from our digital medicine approach.”

Mr Martucci says Akili wants to prove its technology works in bona fide clinical trials. The company has no plans to release any of its products until the studies are complete and it has secured regulatory clearance.

If Akili is successful, it could take business from drugmakers that produce medicines for children with ADHD, such as Shire, the Anglo-Irish pharmaceuticals group. “This is a $7bn drug market and there are lots of parents who don’t necessarily want to put their kids on Ritalin,” says Zack Lynch, of Jazz Venture Partners, an investor in Akili.

Jazz is also backing Pear Therapeutics, which hopes to use digital technologies to augment existing medicines. Pear’s first target are patients suffering from addiction or substance abuse disorder, who number almost 22m in the US.

If companies such as Akili, Pear and Posit can provide data that proves their products work, they could be part of a flourishing new industry. The global market for cognitive assessment and training is worth $2.4bn, according to MM, the research company, and is expected to triple to $7.5bn by 2020.