July 29, 2006
The Orange County Register
Jane Glenn Haas

Dorothy Frymire is working up a mental sweat, focusing totally on a computer screen, oblivious to others and talking to herself.

She moans: “Aaaahhh. God, I got it wrong again!”

She cheers: “YES! YES! OK, give me some more!”

She’s a great-grandmother, 85, lifting mega-weights of gray matter with a “video game” that’s actually scientific software designed to reprogram and improve her mind.

Six weeks ago, she had never held a computer mouse. Now she claims exercising her brain is making her younger.

Frymire is one of eight residents of Newport Beach Plaza enrolled in the first Posit Science Brain Fitness classes at the retirement center. There’s already a waiting list for future classes, say the program coaches.

Learning to use a computer was confusing at first, Frymire says. Now, “The classes are getting easier,” she says, contradicting the program’s designers, who maintain that each day is increasingly difficult.

Coaches say Frymire’s familiarity with the computer and the video-game style is making it easier for her “play” even as the daily tasks grow more complex.

“Whatever,” Frymire says. “I like it.”

Fannie Kunzman, 90, sitting at a computer next to Frymire, concurs. She walks three days a week for physical health and says she’s adding computer games to her regular exercise program.

“Yesterday I remembered a phone number right away. Haven’t done that in years,” Kunzman says.

Can exercise make aging minds young again?

Michael Merzenich, a professor of neuroscience at UC San Francisco, says brains are “plastic” and will improve with exercise.

He co-founded Posit Science three years ago to market the program Frymire and Kunzman are using – a 40-hour program that sells for $495 to individuals. Newport Beach Plaza and other homes in a chain owned by Seattle-based Leisure Care are among some 50 assisted-living homes offering residents the brain-fitness software. Locally, Park Plaza in Orange and Fairwinds-Ivey Ranch in Oceanside also offer the program to residents.

Brain researchers agree with Merzenich that the number of neurotransmitters in the brain begins to decrease at around age 40 or 50. This doesn’t change the brain’s ability to store information but does slow the speed and accuracy with which we retrieve information, says Catherine Myers of the Rutgers University Memory Disorders Project.

The slowdown is behind those “senior moments” people complain about, says Jeff Zimman, Posit CEO. He points to studies insisting that neural connections weaken with age unless they are constantly challenged with new information.

Crossword and jigsaw puzzles are commonly cited as good brain exercises, Zimman says, “but they just retrieve the same information over and over again. The brain needs a fitness program to significantly improve.”

Posit’s Brain Fitness Program uses repetition and progressive challenge to make real, sustainable changes to elemental processing, Zimman says.

The 40-hour program – which is auditory – works at three levels:

  • Speeding up brain function using sounds and speech that begin at a slower pace and gradually become faster. The assertion is that the “game” re-teaches the brain to process information at high (younger) speeds
  • Improving and refining brain accuracy by better processing sounds and speech
  • Strengthening what the brain records through the different program elements

A test program is posted on the Posit Web site, www.positscience.com.

Zimman cites studies he says demonstrate the equivalent of 10 or more years of improvement in memory and cognition among adults 60 and older who participated in test programs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not commented on the Posit Science claims because they relate to “healthy aging,” not medical results.

However, the San Francisco-based firm expects to make medical claims in the future and expects FDA approval, Zimman said.

“Even if the FDA says Merzenich’s listening game is bunk, demand for it could be enormous,” Forbes magazine says in a recent article. There’s no law against selling software that makes no medical claims, the magazine notes.

Meanwhile, Merzenich’s team is conducting clinical trials on software to treat such neurological diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

Last week, Posit got an endorsement for its healthy-aging brain-fitness program from Humana Inc., a large national health insurer. Humana is promoting a co-branded version of the Posit Brain Fitness Program to its Medicare-insured as part of its wellness initiative. Humana is the first insurer to offer brain fitness.

“When choosing a partner, Humana looked for leadership science and strong validation of results,” Zimman says. “Our studies prove that we can make thinking quicker, clearer and stronger.”

At Newport Beach Plaza, Frymire and most other residents in the Posit program have been converted. Only Rose Adams, 83, says, “I’m not sold on it.”

Program coaches at Newport Beach Plaza are more positive.

“It’s exciting to watch their apprehension (about the computer) go away and see their thrill at learning something new,” says Natalie Redle, one of the coaches. “They come to the classes early and tell everyone else about what they’re doing. They are our best ambassadors for the rest of the community.”

Old dogs can learn new tricks to get information, says Carl Cotman, director of the UCI Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia.

Cotman was among three neuroscientists to study beagles for two years to conclude that regular physical activity, mental stimulation and a diet rich in antioxidants can help keep the canine – and maybe the human – brain young.

“Several programs make different degrees of claims and successes in terms of improving cognitive function in aging brains,” Cotman says.

Do they work? Cotman says the jury is still out. “Does this give them a set of visual skills or do they get better at solving everyday practical problems in life? That’s not demonstrated yet,” he says.

But he quickly adds, “Is it hurting anything? No, of course not. It’s an enrichment thing for the mind. It’s getting skills up to where they might have been before and some people show a real benefit from it.”

“Besides,” says Janet Spears, 76, a Newport Beach Plaza participant, “it’s so darn much fun!”