San Francisco, CA – The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report today that reflects an emerging consensus as to the value of brain training in addressing age-related cognitive decline and dementia. Researchers at Posit Science, maker of BrainHQ online exercises and assessments (which have shown benefits in more than 140 peer-reviewed papers), said that while the National Academies are catching on, they need to work smarter and faster to catch up with the forefront of plasticity-based brain training.
“On the one hand, it’s nice that the committee that issued this report finally became familiar with some of the research papers that show the efficacy of plasticity-based brain training,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science. “On the other hand, with a dementia diagnosis occurring at least every 66 seconds, it would be nice to see our national science leadership pushing the frontiers of the field, rather than being a somewhat reluctant caboose.”
The policy statement from the National Academies builds off a systematic review of literature, commissioned by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), looking at 13 interventions and their efficacy in addressing age-related cognitive decline and dementia. The interventions reviewed included: cognitive training, physical exercise, diet, nutraceuticals, multimodal interventions, hormone therapies, lipid lowerers, NSAIDS, anti-dementia drugs, diabetes medications, and other interventions (e.g., lithium, nicotine patch, music lessons, sleep interventions and social engagement).
The AHRQ review found cognitive training had “moderate” evidence, which was more evidence of efficacy than any other intervention examined. All others were rated as having “low” or “insufficient” evidence.
“That result is more impressive when you read the AHRQ report and realize that the reviewers used exclusion criteria to eliminate the need to read about 90 percent of the papers on plasticity-based training,” Dr. Mahncke observed. “And, they further diluted the results by including every type of cognitive training, when the literature pretty clearly sorts into plasticity-based training that consistently works and the rest of cognitive training which has mixed to poor results.”
Today’s policy statement from the National Academies notes three areas show modest evidence of efficacy – cognitive training, as noted in the underlying review; as well as physical exercise and hypertension medication (for those with high blood pressure), which were not as highly rated as cognitive training in the AHRQ systematic review.
“Obviously, people with high blood pressure should take their medication, and physical fitness helps with virtually every aspect of general health,” Dr. Mahncke added. “However, the AHRQ review found ‘low strength’ and ‘insufficient’ evidence with respect to the efficacy of these interventions for cognitive decline and dementia.”
“It sure would be nice if the research politics were put aside, and the leaders in science just looked at the evidence, and told the public the truth,“ Dr. Mahncke said. “The truth is that plasticity-based brain exercise has cognitive benefits that have been shown to be widespread and long-lasting, and have been widely replicated by independent scientists. It’s time for policymakers to set public policy based on those results, especially as leading edge Baby Boomers enter their seventies and Medicare’s future depends on effective interventions.”
BrainHQ assessments and exercises have been shown to have benefits in more than 140 peer-reviewed papers across varied populations. In studies of older adults, the exercises have been shown to improve standard measures of cognition (e.g., speed, attention, memory, and executive function) as well as standard measures of quality of life (e.g., depressive symptoms, feeling of control, self-rated health, and functional independence) and have generalized to real world activities (e.g., driving, balance, gait, and everyday cognition).
The global science team behind BrainHQ is led by Dr. Michael Merzenich, who, interestingly, has been honored for his pioneering work in the discovery and application of lifelong plasticity by each of the National Academies. Dr. Merzenich has been elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, and received the Russ Prize, the highest honor in bio-engineering, from the National Academy of Engineering.
“Over the past thirty years, we have shown repeatedly – first, in animals, and, then, in humans – that we can design plasticity-based training exercises that drive beneficial chemical, structural and functional changes to the brain, which improve its overall health as an organ,” Dr. Merzenich observed. “I’m out of patience with the pace with which we apply these breakthroughs to public health. I’ve been talking about this at conferences at a clip that would make a rock band on tour look sluggish, and I’d like to see the National Academies pick up their pace, and do more, faster.”