October 17, 2022
Toronto Star
Christine Sismondo

The hope is that a training regimen will help build up our neuroplasticity, which will not only help us perform better but, perhaps, down the line, protect individuals from developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

It’s Day One of “brain-training” for me, and I start off by logging into BrainHQ and clicking on a simple assessment exercise — follow the dots.

It starts with two dots, which are bouncing around the screen. Soon enough, the screen is populated with at least a half-dozen identical dots, all of which are also moving around. Still, I breeze through the first few rounds, correctly picking my original two dots. Feeling pretty good about my brain.

It’s a lot harder when they start you off with four dots to keep track of and then fill the screen with a sea of dots. It doesn’t take long before all the dots look the same. So, I pick a random dot, and I lose. The buzzer goes. Bad brain.

To be fair, I was warned it wouldn’t be easy. Jennifer Fraser, a Canadian author who has spent the last several years researching neuroscience for her book “The Bullied Brain,” first told me about BrainHQ. She uses it every day — like it or not.

“I must say that BrainHQ is not fun,” said Fraser. “It’s really, really, hard work that you’re supposed to do half an hour every day. I think all of us like to do things we’re good at. And when I get to navigation skills, even though the algorithms adjust the level, well, I know when I’m not doing well at something.”

“I still do it, though. What I’ve learned from the research is that BrainHQ is as important as physical exercise for overall health,” she said. “Our brain health is vital and so often forgotten.”

Brain HQ, available online and as a phone app, has free “trial” versions but also is available by a monthly or annual subscription.

BrainHQ adjusts the complexity of the challenge to meet your brain where it’s at, so it’s designed to keep you learning at your “threshold.” For example, after my brain failed the four-dot focus challenge, I was demoted to the three-dot level. Well, no pain, no gain, right?

It’s not all follow-the-dots, of course. BrainHQ has 29 types of exercises, divided into six categories — attention, brain speed, memory, people skills, intelligence and navigation. In each one, the user is always being pushed to do more complicated things — and faster. The hope is that this regimen will help build up our neuroplasticity, which will not only help us perform better but, perhaps, down the line, protect individuals from developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

“We used to think of Alzheimer’s more like the way we thought about a disease like tuberculosis,” says Henry Mahncke, neuroscientist and chief executive officer at Posit Science, which makes BrainHQ. “We thought that Alzheimer’s had a single cause that we were going to be able to find and then be able to stop it. I don’t think anyone believes that anymore. And now the approach takes more inspiration from Type 2 diabetes.”

Unlike tuberculosis, which is caused by germs, there are multiple risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, some of which can be mitigated with lifestyle changes. The hope is that we can mitigate risk factors for dementia, too, so that we might delay its onset — or prevent it altogether.

Mahncke isn’t alone in this hope. Over the past few years, for this column, I’ve interviewed at least a half-dozen people working in neuroscience who have championed travel, getting lost, walking (especially new routes), learning new languages, making social connections, improving diet, managing blood pressure and limiting stress. Many would advocate for all of the above.

Few, if any, have brought up brain training. This may be because not everyone agrees it will be as beneficial as “real world” activities when it comes to real-life benefits because, although a lot of research into specific areas is underway, it’s still a relatively new field.

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health thinks brain training is promising enough to fund a $44 million research program at the University of South Florida to further investigate the results of the 2017 ACTIVE study. The study found that use of the speed exercises from brain-training was associated with a lowered risk of dementia.

“What researchers saw with that study was that people who did a specific kind of computerized brain training exercises — actually the exercise that is now in BrainHQ — lowered their risk of dementia over the next 10 years by somewhere between 29 and 48 per cent, depending on how much they did,” says Mahnke. “And that was the first big, gold standard, randomized controlled trial to say that you could change your dementia risk.”

Results like these are key to proving the efficacy of computer brain-training programs, since the skepticism, so far, largely comes from concerns that the benefits of taking your brain to the “gym” for a workout won’t “transfer” to, say, better focus at work or better memory skills.

The same way that you know you’re doing poorly on some exercises, at other times, it’s clear you know you’re at the top of your game — and improving. The big question, though, is does that mean your brain is getting stronger? Or are you just getting better at the exercises on the platform?

As well, some neuroscientists have expressed concern that we might be tempted to put all our resources in one basket and invest all our time, money and energy into apps, when diet, exercise, socializing and learning languages might be more beneficial.

“I’ve heard that criticism, and it makes no sense to me,” says Mahnke. “What we see is that people who do brain training are, unsurprisingly, health-oriented in a variety of ways. I’ve just never talked to anyone who asked, ‘Should I do brain training? Or should I go for a walk around the block?’

“And if anybody ever did ask, I’d say, ‘Don’t make a choice between two of those things. Please do a variety of things to keep your brain and your body healthy.’”