April 3, 2007
Monya Baker

Earlier this year, neuroscientists at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin announced that they could use brain scans to predict a subject’s decisions1. Though the particular application—foretelling whether someone would add or subtract a given set of numbers—has little commercial appeal, the rapid rise of brain monitoring techniques along with the computing capacity to handle large datasets is already changing medicine. Decades-old technologies like electroencephalograms (EEG) have improved dramatically in precision and convenience. Once, people getting EEG scans would need to stay in a hospital, get wired up and wait for an event to happen. Now, they can wear monitoring devices during their normal routines, press a button to record activity during an event and have computer-readable data sent straight to a neurologist.

It’s no surprise then that both academics and entrepreneurs are sprouting companies hoping to combine computing and brain monitoring advances to establish new commercial capabilities. Products include everything from video games designed to maintain mental acuity to brain monitoring devices that detect and track progress for hard-to-diagnose ailments like Alzheimer disease and attention-deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

But although technology might be ready to support a new kind of company, the capital and consumer markets are decidedly less so. What’s more, concerns are mounting that the ethical and social implications of commercializing these products may be especially problematic. In the near term, many neurocognitive researchers are worried that that clinicians and patients might opt for questionable computer-based approaches when low-tech solutions, like surveys and medicines, are more effective.

…One company that has won venture capital is San Francisco’s Posit Science, which sells brain fitness software to promote healthy aging. Posit CEO Jeffrey Zimman says Posit chose to enter the ‘healthy brain’ market because it was in a position to put a program on the market quickly. The program is based on the premise that brain plasticity can be used to counter a natural decline in cognitive function that occurs with age. To strengthen appropriate neural pathways, computer-based exercises ask subjects to process sounds at an accelerating pace. Posit has sold over 100 site licenses to assisted living facilities and similar communities for the elderly since its product first hit the market in mid-2005, says Zimman. Last year, health insurer Humana of San Antonio, Texas, began offering the product as a free perk to its Medicare Advantage members. The product saves Humana money because higher functioning people that feel better about themselves are more likely to take care of other health needs, according to Zimman. “We’re hopeful, but make no claims of delaying the onset of dementia,” he says.

Although the FDA has no interest in regulating ‘healthy aging’, Zimman is enthusiastic about studies his company is conducting with academics across the country in mild cognitive impairment (MCI), schizophrenia and early-stage Alzheimer disease. Zimman says he’s optimistic about results of several soon-to-be-published studies. Published abstracts so far are underwhelming. The company has also published results of a 182-subject study showing that those using the brain fitness program had a significant improvement in their global auditory memory score that was sustained for at least three months.

Zimman declines to predict when his company will reach the break-even point, saying only that the company was pouring its revenues into research and development. However, he believes that Posit, which launched in 2003, will be able to spin itself in several ways either for an initial public offering or an acquisition by many types of companies. “It’s an interesting convergence play, it seems to be in health care and also in consumer software, and part of training, and also perhaps a dry therapeutic.”…