January 25, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite the pandemic slowing scientific and medical studies, brain training research had another banner year. According to Posit Science, maker of the brain fitness app BrainHQ, more than two dozen journal articles about BrainHQ brain exercises and assessments published in 2021.

“Given the starts and stops caused by COVID, the pace of research and discovery certainly exceeded our expectations,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science. “We rely on a global network of independent academic researchers to advance our understanding of what can be achieved through brain training. We are very much in their debt for a remarkably productive year.”

The research covered many areas, including brain training’s impact on injuries, cognitive aging, and mental illness, as well as the efficacy of online cognitive assessments.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries (mTBIs) – diagnosed in more than 400,000 US servicemembers following blast exposure or concussion – are the signature injury of recent conflicts. While most people recover in a few days or weeks, for some (by one estimate 15 percent) the effects are long-lasting, often interfering with work, familial, and community obligations.

The Department of Defense funded the BRAVE Study to determine if BrainHQ could help. In the study – conducted at five military and Veterans’ medical centers – participants trained at home, with remote coaching.

Participants who used BrainHQ made significant gains in cognitive performance – four times bigger than the computer games control and comparable in size to moving from the 50th to the 74th percentile on a bell curve. The benefits persisted when measured three months after training.

A second study, conducted at NYU, extended the results in a variety of TBI classifications – mild, moderate, and severe – showing significant gains in measures of cognition and everyday tasks.

Mental Illness

Minnesota researchers published a landmark study showing BrainHQ significantly improved cognition in people with recent-onset schizophrenia, with gains sustained six months after training. In a related study, researchers found that greater volume in specific brain areas predicted the benefit from BrainHQ.

Cognitive Assessments

BrainHQ training monitors cognitive performance, which resulted in the development of BrainHQ online assessments. A first study validating these assessments showed they were straightforward to learn and use and had good assessment properties.

Multimodal Approach

The year confirmed growing interest in brain training as part of a multimodal approach – combining several elements thought to improve brain health – for people at greatest risk of cognitive decline and dementia. This includes the HABIT program, first developed at Mayo Clinic. HABIT researchers ran a large study which evaluated the benefit of each element of the program. They found BrainHQ contributed to better “psychomotor” performance – but yoga did not. This was a surprise because “psychomotor” function is based on both cognition and movement. This indicated that BrainHQ was making important contributions to both of these important functions.

That surprising result was echoed in a Florida study, pitting BrainHQ on a computer against a version of BrainHQ presented on a device that required patient movement (with a third group as a control). The researchers posited that doing BrainHQ while requiring movement would further improve movement skills. Contrary to the hypothesis, only traditional BrainHQ improved key movement measures – including steps required to stand and turn, measures of walking asymmetry, and length of ground contact – while the novel intervention did not.

A number of other multimodal studies initiated in 2021, as part of the Worldwide FINGER studies – combining cognitive training, physical exercise, and nutrition. BrainHQ is being used in FINGER studies in the USA, Latin America, Japan, Holland, Australia, and Ireland.