June 18, 2008
Business World
P. Hari

People in India may not know much about baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1960) in the US, but this generation has provided the majority of the country’s leaders in politics, science, business and the arts. They have been credited with building several institutions, and in some ways, with building contemporary America itself. One of their less well-known achievements was to start the physical fitness revolution. Now they are on the verge of starting a similar revolution: one of mental fitness.

As biology advanced rapidly after World War II, scientists began to understand the relationship between good living and major diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart ailments. Many baby boomers took this knowledge to heart, thereby starting the physical fitness movement and an entirely new industry. Now science is generating a burst of knowledge about the brain. And based on this knowledge, Americans have begun to generate another industry: the brain fitness industry. It is already worth $225 million in the US and growing fast.

Science now tells us that the brain is plastic, and remains so well into old age. It seems an obvious fact to state, but it is a counterintuitive concept and was not accepted by many neuroscientists till the 1980s. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, the real extent of the brain’s plasticity was not widely appreciated. They thought that the brain was hardwired early in life, and that all its mass and circuitry were established in the first few years of life. Says Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco and founder of Posit Science, a maker of brain fitness tools, “In spite of evidence, people did not believe that the brain can remain plastic in old age.”

Merzenich himself was at the forefront of the transformation that changed our notions about the brain. Now it is known that the brain — unless affected by serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s — can adapt and learn and change in structure even in ripe old age. It is also known that specific mental exercises can improve the brain in specific ways. They improve the brain chemistry and make neurons grow new connections. The improvements are noticeable in brain function, and scientists can see the changing brain via imaging. Neuroscientists now think that the brain forms even new neurons in adulthood.

Brain Game
The brain fitness industry is already worth $225 million in the US and growing very fast

The first brain fitness company was Scientific Learning, set up in 1999. Now there are around 20 such companies in the world

There are four segments in the industry — education, gaming, healthcare and corporate wellness

Ready To Cash In
The evidence of brain plasticity from animal experiments is overwhelming. In Merzenich’s laboratory, scientists have taken old rats with a few weeks to live and made their brains look young. Says Merzenich, “We have not seen one change in the brain that is not reversible.” Over 30,000 research papers document brain plasticity. All this new knowledge is generating a burst of business activity, some of them from leading scientists in the field. Merzenich set up Posit Science in the year 2003, to develop and sell brain fitness programmes. Swedish firm Cogmed was co-founded by two neuroscientists from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The first company in the brain fitness industry was Scientific Learning, set up in 1999. It had developed computer-based programmes for children with dyslexia, a learning disability. Worldwide, the major event for this industry was the launch of Nintendo’s video game Brain Age in May 2005. Over 24 million people have bought this game. According to the San Francisco-based market research company SharpBrains, there exist around 20 brain fitness companies around the world. SharpBrains itself is a product of this new phenomenon. It puts the US market at $225 million in 2007, up from only $100 million in 2005. The world market is around $700 million, most of it from Brain Age.

Brain fitness programmes are used by a variety of people. The basketball team Memphis Tigers in the US uses brain fitness software for improving brain function and peripheral vision. The Erickson Retirement Communities, one of the largest in the US, use brain fitness programmes to keep their customers mentally agile. Hospitals and insurance companies use them to treat patients who have undergone chemotherapy. The baby boomers, now entering their 60s, promise to be the next big set of customers. “The baby boomers are very productive people,” says Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder of SharpBrains. “They want to remain productive into old age, and they are repeating the physical fitness story in brain fitness.”

SharpBrains divides the brain fitness industry into four categories. The first is the education segment, and consists of products for children with special needs. The second is cons- umer and gaming. It did not exist in 2005, but was worth $80 million in the US in 2007. This segment consists of Nintendo and companies such as Cogmed, Posit Science and Lumos Labs, all of which have managed to raise venture capital. The third segment, healthcare, develops products to treat patients with brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). This segment is worth $65 million. One company in this field, California-based Dakim, raised $10.6 million in February this year. The fourth segment is corporate wellness, military and sports. It is worth $20 million.

What is the science behind all these products? The brain declines with age, but declines faster when not used well. When we are young, we rapidly learn new things. The brain, thus, keeps getting new inputs, and the neurons keep forming new connections. When we advance into adulthood, we no longer learn actively. We get into a maintenance mode, which does not challenge the brain enough. The connections decay, and the brain chemistry weakens. However, new research shows that the brain continues to be young if we keep challenging it with new activities. Moreover, if you challenge a brain that shows signs of decay, it can reverse the decay and come back into youth.

So, learning new things is the best way is to keep the brain young. Learn a new language or a new musical instrument. Do some juggling to sharpen motor skills or learn to play chess. So why do we need all this brain fitness software? Their proponents, many of them distinguished scientists, argue that they concentrate many potential years of mental activity into a few high performance sessions. Learning new things on your own is good, but not as efficient as a set of well-developed exercises. Recent research from the University of Michigan has suggested that even intelligence — which was previously thought to be inherited — improves with brain exercise. Says Susanne Jaeggi, scientist at the University of Michigan, “We knew that training could help you improve at specific tasks, but we now find that exercises can help you tackle completely new problems better.” Our brain, when stretched, is capable of surprising itself.