January 25, 2018
Digital Journal
Tim Sandle

The U.S. Military has arranged for every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine to have access to brain training on BrainHQ web and mobile device apps. Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science explains why.

BrainHQ was first used by the military and veterans’ facilities in treatment and research programs targeting cognitive decline from injury, aging, and mental illness, and has since expanded into training service members for peak performance and resilience. BrainHQ has also been used in programs with the Israeli military and the Italian military, targeting service member retention, behavioral monitoring, and peak performance by elite forces.

To discover more about this initiative, Digital Journal spoke with Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, which developed BrainHQ computerized exercises and assessments.

Digital Journal: What are the brain injury risks facing service personnel?

Dr. Henry Mahncke: Brain injuries like traumatic brain injury, concussions, blast exposure, post-traumatic stress disorder, tinnitus, are a signature injury of service members in recent conflicts. We work with dozens of military and veterans facilities in research and treatment addressing such issues.

DJ: Can these risks manifest after a person has left the service? Dr. Mahncke: Yes. Typically, service members are eager to stay with or return to their units, and may not even recognize these seemingly invisible injuries. For example, blast injuries may not manifest themselves until months or years after the blast exposure.

DJ: What are the advantages of brain training?

Dr. Mahncke:: I should point out that not all brain training is effective. An independent systematic review of commercially-available brain exercises and games (targeting older adults) found that most such products have not been shown effective in peer-reviewed studies. In fact, they found that only the exercises from our program (BrainHQ) were backed by multiple, high-quality studies.

DJ: What types of studies?

Dr. Mahncke:: These are now more than 140 peer-reviewed papers reporting on studies of exercises in BrainHQ. Those papers show improvements in performance (across varied populations) in standard measures of cognition. For example: speed, attention and memory) and standard measures of quality of life (like mood, confidence and control, and health-related quality of life), as well as in real world activities (such as gait, balance, driving). More than 60 peer-reviewed papers have been published on the impact of exercises in BrainHQ on a variety of cognitive conditions (e.g., brain injuries, mental illnesses and neurodegenerative diseases). So, there are a lot of well-documented benefits to these exercises, and the evidence keep growing every month. Of course, if you have a brain that operates more quickly and accurately, that should impact nearly every waking moment of your life.

DJ: How does brain training work in practice?

Dr. Mahncke:Three decades ago scientists discovered that the brain is plastic — capable of chemical, physical, and functional change — throughout life. Initially, lifelong brain plasticity was demonstrated in experiments in which lab rats engaged in intensive, repetitive and progressively challenging tasks, with rewards for progress. Scientists were able to observe rapid remodeling of brain structure and abilities first in animals and then in humans. Our co-founder, Dr. Michael Merzenich, is widely credited with discovering lifelong brain plasticity, with first applying its principles in humans (with his co-invention of the cochlear implant which has restored hearing to 100,000s of people living with deafness) and with pioneering the field on plasticity-based computerized brain training. These game-like exercises typically may involve making distinctions in sensory perceptions, at increasing speeds and levels of difficulty. Each training session takes 1-2 minutes and may involve 10-30 stimulus sets. The exercises continuously adjust to each user, based on all prior sessions. They also adjust based on performance, so if you are having a bad day, they get easier, and on a good day, they get harder. The idea is to keep pushing your personal performance threshold to new “personal bests.”

DJ: How is success measured?

Dr. Mahncke:BrainHQ records your baseline at each level of every exercise, and presents your personal progress from baseline (by exercise and level), as well as by cognitive areas. In addition, users can elect to add demographic information to generate comparison to others.

DJ: What services does BrainHQ offer? Is it expensive?

Dr. Mahncke:BrainHQ is available to individuals at our website as an online subscription service for US$8-14 per month (depending on length of subscription). There also is a group version of BrainHQ that is used by clinicians, sports teams, enterprises, and other associations, with the ability to track usage and performance across the group. We also offer a product, Drivesharp, which targets visual speed, reaction time, and the size of your useful field of view. That product is distributed through auto clubs and auto insurers, because of its impact on driver safety and crash rates. In addition, we have a library of more than 100 computerized cognitive assessments that we use in studies and in particular projects with partners, such as measuring the cognitive component of sports performance.

DJ: Over which platforms is BrainHQ delivered?

Dr. Mahncke:BrainHQ can be easily accessed from most Internet-connected devices. We offer BrainHQ online as a web app on computers and mobile devices, and also as native Android and Apple apps. Because your BrainHQ account is stored in the cloud, you can move seamlessly from one device to another.

DJ: Why has the US Military has arranged for every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine to have access to brain training?

Dr. Mahncke:The military is using brain training in three ways: readiness, resilience and recovery. Our work began in the third area — research and treatment programs with the military and veterans addressing brain injury recovery. More recently, interest has grown in what you might call “mental or cognitive readiness.” That’s using brain training to target the elemental cognitive abilities of attention and speed of processing as building blocks to higher abilities, such as memory and decision-making. Improvements in these areas improve overall readiness. There also is growing recognition that brain training may help with resilience — that cognitive conditioning is much like physical conditioning, in that being in better condition may help people avoid or bounce back from challenges. BrainHQ already is deployed at dozens of military and veterans’ facilities in treatment and research programs, addressing cognitive decline from aging, brain injury, and mental illness, as well as attaining peak performance in service members. This new arrangement with the libraries of the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines is designed to make BrainHQ available to every service member and veteran. The libraries use DEMCO Software to enable access to BrainHQ, even when a user is not physically located at the library.

DJ: Have you worked with armed services of other countries?

Dr. Mahncke:Yes. There have been prior public reports on our work with the Italian and Israeli armies. The Italian army uses our cognitive assessments as part of screening recruits, and also has conducted studies on the impact on performance in elite troops. Our work with the Israeli army includes a special app that regularly measures mood, as part of a project aimed at improving early detection of issues and improving troop retention. We have a similar project underway here in the United States with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.