Daniel S. Levine
San Francisco Business Times
September 16, 2005

I was down in the lobby of my building, ready to race off to meet with the CEO of a fledgling bioscience company, when I decided it would be best to return to my office and find out the name of who I was off to meet.

I have come to understand my brain is a lot like my computer these days. My hard disk is getting filled with crap, I seem to be running on half the ideal amount of RAM and my processor just doesn’t seem to work as fast as it did when it was fresh out of the box.

So it was with some personal interest that I went to meet Jeffrey Zimman, (the CEO whose name I couldn’t remember). Zimman is CEO of Posit Science, which has developed software it hopes will do for the brain what the sit-up has done for abs.

Posit was founded by UCSF neuroscientist and serial entrepreneur Michael Merzenich, the brains, as it were, behind Scientific Learning Corp. and the cochlear implant, which allows deaf children to hear sound and understand speech. It now employs about 50 people.

The basic idea behind Posit is that the clump of gray and white Play-Doh inside your skull is malleable, regardless of your age. Like a muscle that gets worked out at the gym, proper exercise of a brain can revitalize it to not just to look and feel 10 years younger, but actually function like it is.

This is known as neuroplasticity. Zimman said there is plenty of evidence in the scientific literature for this and as an example notes that imaging of the brains of London cab drivers showed that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with navigation, enlarges and adapts as a result of the work they do.

Cognitive abilities begin to decline when people are in their thirties. This accelerates significantly after the age of 50. Though the rate and severity of decline varies, there are common causes everyone shares. This includes weaker and less reliable input from the senses (think static on a radio), a reduction in the production of important brain chemicals that play a key role in learning and memory (think dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine) and a natural slowing of brain process (think … think … think).

Posit’s computer programs are designed to train the brain to improve the strength and clarity of the signals it gets from the senses, stimulate it to produce important brain chemicals and increase the speed at which it processes information.

For instance, the first module in the company’s Brain Fitness software focuses on auditory processing and memory. The exercises sharpen the user’s ability to distinguish between similar sounds. The sounds become shorter and faster as the user progresses. The sounds then become words and the word sentences. It also tests auditory memory and the ability to carry out a series of verbal instructions.

The software presented to me is currently being used in several senior-care facilities takes the form of a game. It reminded me of the Reader Rabbit software my kids used when they were learning to read. The San Francisco-based company is working on different looks for different markets. A version it expects to release next year will be aimed at Baby Boomers hoping to keep the tools in their shed sharp, and will likely have a different look.

The company has used standard neuropsychiatric tests to track improvement in users. On average, the company said it’s seen users show improvements equivalent to being 10 years younger. The company, however, makes no medical claims for the product and is talking with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about what kinds of test it would need to conduct if it were to market the software as a medical device.

Venture capitalists already like the look of Posit. The company has raised $21.5 million in two rounds of funding that include investors like Aberdare Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and VSP Capital.

Posit is also working with several universities to conduct studies of the efficacy of the software and expects to publish those in peer-reviewed journals early next year.

One of the interesting things I found in a brief demonstration of the software was that it demanded my full attention in a way that I may not normally act when my wife is talking to me. I suspect if I could concentrate like that when she talks, I could spare myself some grief.

If nothing else, though, Zimman assured me I could keep myself out of hot water by explaining any future lapse in short-term memory was not due to a lack of caring, just decreased acetylcholine production.