May 17, 2019
Patricia Kime

A brain-training program that’s available for free to active-duty personnel and their families has been proven to increase short- and long-term memory in those diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury, according to new research unveiled this week at a conference in Washington, D.C.

A small study of 83 military personnel and veterans diagnosed with mild TBI — some whose injuries occurred more than seven years ago — showed that using BrainHQ, a training program developed by software company Posit Science, five days a week for 13 weeks improved cognitive function more than playing computer games like Hangman and Mahjong for the same amount of time.

And the benefit persisted for at least 12 weeks after the training ended, according to the research.

“These are long-awaited and important results,” said Posit Science CEO Henry Mahncke in a news release. “Not only does this provide … evidence that this intervention could play a critical role in evidence-based clinical programs, the trial also demonstrates that such an intervention can address cognitive issues across a diverse [mild] TBI population, even in remote locations.”

According to the research, 77% of the BrainHQ group showed improved cognitive function versus 38% in the games group, and their cognitive function improved on average by nine points as opposed to the games group, which improved by 2.3 points.

The BrainHQ group also saw the improvements remain after they stopped the training, while the games group did not.

To fully understand the impact BrainHQ may have, the study should be replicated with a larger group of participants, officials said.

But retired Army Col. Dallas Hack, former director of Combat Casualty Care Research at the U.S. Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command, said the research’s results “exceeded his fondest expectations.”

“When this study was selected for funding, we were hoping it would help troops impacted by mild TBI,” said Hack in a news release. “The broad applicability, modest cost and self-directed nature of the intervention mean it could be scaled very quickly.”

Researchers from academic institutions such as the University of California-Stanford and Johns Hopkins University found similar results, which is why the Defense Department didn’t wait to see the results of its own study, called BRAVE, to embrace BrainHQ.

The program has been available to active-duty personnel and family members since early last year through Army Knowledge Online, the online base library system and Military OneSource.

According to the Defense Department, more than 316,000 service members have been diagnosed since 2001 with a mild TBI. Symptoms include psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and cognitive issues like forgetfulness, trouble concentrating and difficulties learning new skills.

The research showed that BrainHQ addressed mainly memory loss and concentration, with veterans improving their cognitive performance measures on average by 24 percentile ranks, meaning that someone who measured in the 30th percentile at the start of the research jumped to the 54th percentile.

BrainHQ’s games, which challenge attention, memory, speed, navigation and personal skills, are nowhere near as stimulating as games such as Halo, Fallout or even Tetris. But Amy Kruse, a human performance expert who once worked at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a program manager and has used BrainHQ, said it works.

“It’s not the most exciting … but what they have is scientifically validated. It absolutely is beneficial,” said Kruse, who was not involved in the study.

BRAVE was funded by Posit Science through a grant from the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, and the researchers included Mahncke. It drew others from across the Department of Veterans Affairs and DoD, and included scientists from the VA Boston Healthcare System; the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston; the VA Connecticut Healthcare System; the Army Health Clinic Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

More research needs to be done to determine whether BrainHQ can ward off cognitive decline or improve the brain health of those with other conditions that cause memory loss. But the research, said Joseph DeGutis with VA Boston, “provides evidence that this computerized cognitive training program can be incorporated as part of a treatment plan to improve cognitive function.”

“Patients with persistent cognitive impairment following TBI can self-administer this computerized cognitive training program in their own homes with remote supervision by health coaches,” he wrote in the poster board presented at the Traumatic Brain Injury Conference in Washington this week.