August 11, 2020
Staff Researcher Interview with:
Henry Mahncke, PhD
Chief Executive Officer
Dr. Mahncke earned his PhD at UCSF in the lab where lifelong brain plasticity was discovered. At the request of his academic mentor, he currently leads a global team of more than 400 brain scientists engaged in designing, testing, refining, and validating the computerized brain exercises found in the BrainHQ app from Posit Science, where he serves as CEO. Tell us what’s important about this new study in people with Down Syndrome?

Response: Often, we believe that genetic conditions are predetermined and completely inalterable, but this new study underscores that, when it comes to the brain, positive change is almost always possible – regardless of age or health condition. That’s consistent with the science of brain plasticity, and it’s a very different and hopeful way to think about the potential of people with Down Syndrome – and people, generally. Can you briefly describe Down Syndrome and findings in this study?

Response: Down Syndrome is one of the most common genetic abnormalities in humans, found in about 1 in 1,000 births each year, and caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy . of chromosome 21.It’s usually associated with physical growth delays and characteristic facial features. While cognitive abilities vary enormously, one study estimates the average IQ of a young adults is about 50 (comparable to average 8 or 9 year olds).

In a pilot study among 12 people with Down Syndrome involving physical, cognitive and EEG measurements, researchers at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, found a 10-week combined protocol of physical exercises and computerized brain training led to a reorganization of the brain and to improved performance on both cognitive and physical measures.

The physical training consisted of aerobic, flexibility, strength, and balance exercises. The cognitive training used in the study was the Greek version of the commercially-available BrainHQ brain app, consisting of 29 visual and auditory exercises targeting memory, attention, processing speed, problem-solving, navigation, and social skills.

The researchers had hypothesized that the training would trigger the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to change chemically, structurally and functionally. Their results showed increased connectivity within the left hemisphere and from left to right hemisphere, as well as improved performance on physical and cognitive assessments. What kind of assessments were used and what did the researchers see? 

Response: Physical improvements were reported in upper body strength and endurance (using the Arm Curl assessment), and in mobility, and static and dynamic balance (using the Timed Up and Go assessment).

Cognitive gains were reported in improved general cognitive capacity (using the Raven AB and Raven Total assessments), planning and organization skills (Using the WISC-III Mazes assessment), and in short-term memory, attention, and concentration (using the WISC-III Digit Span Forward assessment). What are the implications of these findings?

Response: In their report, the researchers write: “Our results reveal a strong adaptive neuroplastic reorganization, as a result of the training that leads to a more complex and less-random network, with a more pronounced hierarchical organization.”

The researchers also note that the widespread cortical reorganization and increases in cognitive performance indicate the brain has entered into a more flexible state.

“Our findings underline the ability of the Down Syndrome brain to respond to the cognitive demands of external stimuli, reflecting the possibility of developing independent-living skills,” the researchers conclude.

Bear in mind that these are early results from a small pilot study. However, they do suggest that brain plasticity is as powerful a force in the brains of people with Down Syndrome as it is in the brains of everyone. These initial results merit scientific attention and should spur further research, including randomized controlled trials, in Down Syndrome and in other genetic conditions affecting the brain. What was your involvement in the study?

Response: This was an independent research study run at the university with no funding provided by our company. I was not directly involved in the study, but we have a long-standing scientific collaboration with the Greek scientists who led this work – they led the translation of BrainHQ into Greek. The team there has had a long-standing interesting in combining physical exercise and cognitive training to develop integrated programs that improve physical and cognitive health. This work was originally funded by the European Union through a program called “Long-Lasting Memories” which led to initial studies of this integrated brain health program in older populations, and now the use of this approach in the current study.

There are now more than 100 studies of the exercises in BrainHQ and the lion’s share have been run in this manner — by independent university-based investigators who have a hypothesis on brain change that they are interested in exploring to more fully understand d how the brain works and the implications of plasticity-based brain training for human health and performance.