Brain-Health Business Grows with Research and Demand

By Fernandez, Alvaro | Aging Today, March/April 2008 | Go to article overview

Brain-Health Business Grows with Research and Demand


Fernandez, Alvaro, Aging Today


In recent years, a growing body of scientific evidence has shown that human brains retain the ability to generate neurons and change over a lifetime, discoveries that have broken the 20th-century scientific paradigm of the aging brain as fixed and stagnant. Furthermore, neuroimaging and cognitive training studies are demonstrating that well-directed mental exercise can help people maintain a healthy brain throughout their lifespan.

How can people use emerging technologies to keep their brains healthy and productive as long as possible? An emerging market for brain health-$225 million in 2007 in the United States alone, of which consumers accounted for $80 million-is trying to address that question in a way that complements other, more traditional pillars (and multibillion-dollar industries) of brain health, such as physical exercise, balanced diet, stress management (stress has been shown to actually kill neurons and reduce the rate of creation of new ones) and lifelong learning.

2007 AN ACTIVE YEAR

A series of important events took place in 2007, a seminal year for the field of brain health, beginning in January when mainstream media publications such as Time magazine and CBS News started publishing major stories on neuroplasticity and brain exercise. This media coverage followed the release of long-awaited results from national clinical trials showing that significant percentages of the participants ages 65 and older who trained for five weeks improved their memory, reasoning and information-processing speed. Findings from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study were reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Dec. 20, 2006) and revealed that even after five years, participants in the ACTIVE computer-based program showed less of a decline in information-processing skills than those in a control group that received no. cognitive training.

Also last year, the Journals of Gerontology published a special issue in June 2007 devoted to cognitive training research studies; actress Nicole Kidman became the mass-market face of brain training, highlighting the commercial success of Nintendo Brain Age software; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the Alzheimer's Association, released a cognitive health road map to guide research efforts and improve public-health education.

Furthermore, at the annual meeting of the Gerontology Society of America in November, researcher Elizabeth Zelinski of the University of Southern California's Andrus Gerontology Center reported very positive initial (not yet published) results from the IMPACT (Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training) study, which . was based on the Posit Science program that trains auditory processing.

Also in November, the Brain Resource Company, an Australian firm specializing in developing cognitive assessments for clinical trials, signed a multimillion-dollar contract with an insurance company to develop more sensitive diagnostic brain markers and testing to enable wider adoption of cognitive assessments.

CLEARING UP CONFUSION

These and other developments are signs of an incipient market that, because it is still immature, has resulted in much misinformation and confusion. Here, I will address some typical questions about cognitive fitness programs:

Do these programs cure Alzheimer's? No program can claim that it specifically delays or prevents Alzheimer's disease. Mental stimulation coupled with other lifestyle factors (nutrition, physical exercise and stress management) can contribute toward building a cognitive reserve that may reduce the probability of Alzheimer's-related symptoms.

What can brain-health training do? Human cognitive abilities vary in how they evolve with aging. For example, pattern recognition and emotional self-regulation improve, whereas speed of processing, working memory and novel problem-solving decline. …

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