April 4, 2005
San Francisco Chronicle
Carolyn Said

Katherine Moskwin, 71, a retired medical transcriptionist, started noticing that her short-term memory was shot awhile ago.

“I’d go into a room and forget what I was coming for,” she said. “I’d be dialing the phone and stop and say ‘Who am I dialing?’ ”

That’s one reason Moskwin is trying out a new software program from San Francisco’s Posit Science Corp. that promises to help stave off and reverse some symptoms of aging, such as memory loss, declining vision and hearing, and reduced motor control.

Moskwin, along with other residents of the BridgePoint retirement community in San Francisco, has spent an hour a day for the past three weeks playing computer games designed to sharpen and stimulate her listening and memory. She is about a third of the way through the complete Brain Health Training Program, which runs about 40 hours, usually done over eight weeks.

She already can sense a difference. “I’m very interested in learning Spanish,” said Moskwin, who grew up speaking both Russian and English. “I notice when I asked the Spanish-speaking caregivers here for words, I retain them better.”

Most people know that “use it or lose it” applies to mental agility as much as to physical fitness. Magazines are filled with tips about keeping the mind alert by studying Japanese or taking up ballroom dancing.

But Posit Science says its brain-training program takes a more rigorous approach, backed by scientific research.

Posit co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Michael Merzenich, a professor of neuroscience at UCSF, has spent more than 30 years researching brain plasticity.

“The brain is just as deserving of a workout as the body,” he said in a presentation to a national conference on aging last month. “The brain needs progressively challenging learning that is intensive, effortful and repetitive. ”

That premise underlies Posit’s approach to cognitive calisthenics.

Posit scientists created exercises to stimulate specific brain functions. Then its video game designers turned them into computer games, complete with a couple of animated coaches to give tips and rewards like amusing pictures when players complete tasks.

The company says one key to brain rejuvenation is that the exercises become more difficult as players progress so they’re always working at a threshold of intensity.

“As we age, things get ‘noisier.’ Information from our senses is less reliable and processed less well,” said Posit co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Zimman. “The systems in the brain get sluggish. We’re trying to improve the ability to accurately process signals (such as incoming verbal information), increase speed and stimulate the machinery to produce key brain chemicals.”

Patently superior
Posit started just 18 months ago but already has 53 issued patents, almost all for Merzenich’s inventions. (He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences whose credits also include being on the team that invented the cochlear implant in the late 1980s.) Posit licensed many of them from Scientific Learning, an Oakland company Merzenich founded in 1996 that makes software to teach language and reading skills to K-12 students.

Posit has raised $7.2 million in venture capital and is seeking more funding.

The software isn’t quite ready for prime time. Posit hopes to release the first module, which is focused on hearing, by the end of the year. Future modules will address eyesight, problem solving and multitasking, motor control, and balance and mobility.

Pricing will vary from less than $50 to $1,000 depending on intensity levels and other factors. Zimman said he envisions senior residences and other facilities buying site licenses to set up cognitive fitness centers, or “brain gyms.”

The company is not making any medical claims for its software. Instead, it is promoting it as a tool for healthy aging, saying its studies on test participants have shown their memory improving as if they were 10 years younger.

Bob Zorich, 75, president of the BridgePoint resident council, got involved in testing Posit’s software because he wanted to help “contribute some solution to this age-old problem of senility that affects older people.”

Despite its game-like features, the software definitely requires hard work, he said, but he’s noticed a benefit.

The auditory exercises deliberately emphasize different word sounds “like someone has mush in their mouth. You have to strain to hear it,” he said.

The result in real life has been that he doesn’t have to strain as much to hear regular conversations because his hearing has become sharper, said Zorich, who spent 36 years in Chevron’s finance division.

Zorich also mused out loud that he found using the software fairly similar to playing chess because “they’re both taxing and stimulating.”

That inspired a Posit executive to jump in to correct him with the descriptions that everyone in the company recites faithfully. “But this is the right stimuli, in the right order, with the right timing,” he said.

Charles DeCarli, professor of neurology at UC Davis Medical School and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center, said his institution is testing the Posit software with 40 patients who have mild cognitive impairment.

Scientific approach
Twenty of them use the software. The other 20 spend the same time doing self-selected computer activities. The patients undergo MRIs, PET scans and neuropsychological testing before and after the six-week trial.

“This is one of the few things that I think is based on very strong biological data,” DeCarli said. “Mike (Merzenich) has done a lot of work on animal neurodevelopment, showing there is in fact neuroplasticity. You can alter cortical development based on the environment.”

While DeCarli said it’s too soon to assess whether the software works as promised, he appreciates the hard-core science underlying it as well as the rigorous testing.

Posit, which has several university studies ongoing and plans a larger academic trial this quarter, said it hopes to publish test results in scientific journals by the end of the year.

BridgePoint resident Yvette Kelly, 76, said she enjoys the mental workouts.

A retired teacher, principal and school administrator, she’s used to trying to excel, and she already keeps her brain active with poker, bridge, mah jong and crossword puzzles.

“This is more stimulating,” she said. “I really look forward to trying to get my scores higher. It’s like being in school; you want to make the grade.”

Posit Science can be reached at www.positscience.com, (800) 514-3961.