April 14, 2008
Jacob Franek

Use it or lose it. These are guiding words of wisdom when it comes to keeping your wits sharp, and it’s a slogan that has spawned a massive brain-training software industry aimed at keeping your mental muscle fit.

Since the early ’90s, cognitive research has been mounting evidence in support of the idea that brain training improves mental health and longevity. Whether brain stimulation comes from intellectually demanding jobs, hobbies or education, the result is one and the same. Stimulating the brain can generate new neurons and can actually strengthen their connections, a result that is thought to inhibit mental decline and delay or prevent mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.

Although the full benefits of brain training have yet to be unraveled, this has not slowed the brain-training software industry from posting record growth across all consumer segments. SharpBrains.com, an industry watchdog, has recently estimated the size of the U.S. brain-training software industry at $225 million in 2007, up $100 million from 2005.

Clearly, the brain-training software industry is onto something big. However, the market has become flooded with products that are leaving some would-be consumers feeling a little brain drained. Let’s quell the confusion, break down the brain-training software industry and see who’s using the products:

The individual consumer
The individual consumer segment of the market is showing the most dramatic gains in the brain-training software industry — a fact that industry experts seem convinced is a result of Nintendo’s Brain Age phenomenon.

At the end of 2007, Nintendo’s ever-popular Brain Age and its Japanese equivalent, Brain Training, sold a combined 11.71 million copies worldwide — and sales of Brain Age 2 are not far behind. Nintendo’s mind-meddling video series feature a variety of brainteasers that range from math questions to Sudoku puzzles, and while the software is not supported by any cognitive research, Nintendo has made it very clear that brain training is fun — and profitable!

Not surprisingly, Nintendo’s success has spawned an army of competitors: GameLoft’s Brain Challenge was released in 2008 for the Xbox 360 Live Arcade, while a number of websites, including MyBrainTrainer.com, Happy-Neuron.com and BrainBuilder.com, now offer comprehensive online brain-training programs for a small fee.

Aside from the just-for-fun segment of brain-training genre, examples of research-backed software are also gaining recognition. The Brain Fitness Program by Posit Science offers detailed memory training at only an hour a day for eight weeks. Tailored to the elderly population, Posit’s software is upheld with significant research and company execs are insistent that the product is not a video game. Similar claims are being made by Dakim, Inc. and CogniFit, Inc. in support of their respective programs, although independent research is lacking.

K-12 school systems
For many young adults, memories of those blessed computer learning games that were made available in school are greeted with warm and fuzzy endearment. All of them — from All the Right Type to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and from Mario Teaches Typing to the Cross Country Canada/USA series — are relics of a better time.

The future promises a rebirth for the educational brain-training software industry; however, the games will likely be more purpose-driven and backed by substantial behavioral research. Much of the software we are now seeing is aimed at addressing students with learning disabilities. Fast ForWord by the Scientific Learning Corporation is one example of needs-based software that’s aimed at children who are reading below grade level. Lexia Learning Systems Inc., on the other hand, offers a slew of educational reading software to guide anyone at any stage of life.

Aside from strict education, what these next-generation pieces of learning software are truly teaching us is that educational gaming is no longer a petty endeavor; these companies have literally invested millions in development and research. Though the majority of research is internally driven, offering case studies and the like, several independent, peer-reviewed studies have offered promising results.

The brain-training software industry also targets professionals and athletes

Healthcare providers
With substantial improvements in brain-imaging technology comes the development of new software to serve as alternative treatment for mental illnesses or to improve rehabilitation.

You may recall a headline story that came of Toronto about a 13-year-old autistic girl named Carly Fleischmann. Though unable to speak, Carly has been able to type out lengthy passages (with the help of advanced communication software) about her experiences with autism, highlighting her struggles and her desire to be understood. Such a story provides hope for the future of brain-training computer programs like TeachTown: Basics by TeachTown Inc., which is a comprehensive treatment program addressing symptoms of autism in children between the ages of 2 and 7.

Cogmed’s Working Memory Training is just another example of new software-based alternative treatment, used to reduce symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. The product works by training the working memory — responsible for short-term storage and manipulation of information — and thus significantly improves attention according to several clinical trials.

NovaVision’s Vision Restoration Therapy, on the other hand, is used strictly for rehabilitation. The software stimulates rewiring of the visual cortex, the area of the brain responsible for sight, and is being offered to veterans or active military personnel whose vision has been affected by traumatic brain injury or stroke.

Fortune 1000 companies, military & sports teams
Do you dream of becoming an impact player? Of making it to the next level? These are just a couple of the promotional questions asked by the ACE Applied Cognitive Engineering Ltd. group for its Basketball IntelliGym cognitive training software. Winner of Consumer Guide’s Best Buy award, IntelliGym is one of a new line of sexy sports software aimed at performance enhancement. In fact, the sports brain-training movement has advanced far beyond what is publicly recognized.

Driven by brain-training software, specialty sports vision facilities are popping up all around the world, helping athletes train skills that were previously believed to be unteachable, such as anticipation, field vision, timing, reaction speed, focus, and concentration. The rise in this industry has birthed a magazine, SportsVision Magazine, and an online visual performance training program, the SportsEyeSight program, which is backed by testimonials from numerous MLB pros.

Moving from dugout to desktop, it’s no big secret that profit and productivity go hand in hand. This simple point might explain why major organizations worldwide are now turning to brain training in a bid to boost performance. Companies such as CogState and Scientific Brain Training even offer advanced employee diagnostic software to track employees’ mental progress or to enhance employee recruitment. Boosting productivity is attractive not only to the business world, but also to the military, as the military has used flight simulators and other software to simulate wartime environments for years.

Use it or lose it
While not everyone subscribes to the “use it or lose it” philosophy of mental stabilization, one can’t help but wonder whether there is more to brain training than mere marketing hype suggests. Perhaps the only way to truly find out is to simply give it a try. Be prepared, however, as when it comes to flexing your mental muscle, your training regiment should be no different than any other workout; if it’s not fun, you won’t stick with it. And if you don’t stick with it, any mental perks you may gain might simply fade over time.