The future of brain fitness

Brains fitness: an introduction
Brains fitness: What's next?

Games are a very powerful medium for health, education and social impact. The phenomenon was well captured at the Games for Health conference. Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains, created the Cognitive Health Track for the conference, where he covered convergence of the scientific, technological and demographic trends that led to creation of a new market: software and online applications that can help people of all ages assess and train cognitive abilities.

In this last of a three-part interview series, I talk with him about the future of brain fitness and collaboration in the field.

Do you practice any brain fitness exercises yourself?

That’s a good question.  The answer is yes.  When we talk about the main pillars of brain fitness, we talk about nutrition, physical fitness, stress management and mental exercise.  I lead a potentially stressful life as an entrepreneur and executive. The approach that I benefit most from is biofeedback based for stress management; what cognitive scientists call emotional self-regulation.  It is important for people to understand that emotions play a role in cognition and brain function, so it worked for me.

Another thing I do: when I fly I try to devote at least 30-40 minutes to one of these programs that exercise a variety of cognitive functions.  Even if the game is tailored for older adults, it becomes more difficult and tailored to your level so even if I’m 30 years younger that the target group, I see it as a mental challenge that is more stimulating than doing a crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or reading a book.  I haven’t noticed any specific benefits but I like mental challenges overall. I know from a cognitive research point of view, that is important.  I would like to do more serious training based on working memory training.  Based on the research it’s a function that seems to be clearly trainable and can transfer to intelligence and overall capacity to learn new information.  And for my job, obviously, processing information is all I do.  Working memory is probably one of my bottlenecks but I haven’t worked on that one yet.

It’s like a gym membership.  Lots of people have it but only a small percentage of people actually go to the gym regularly.  These programs are effective only if you practice regularly with significant amounts of time dedicated to them.  Will it ever become so mainstream so that people in their busy lives actually do it or will it remain a semi-clinical product whose value will be to show how specific interventions reduce health care costs?

I think the whole category will prove to be extremely valuable when people understand what to expect.  They are not general solutions, but they are not Ginkgo Biloba either.  Ginkgo has been shown not to work but still people spend hundreds of millions in the U.S. as well as on other supplements that have not been shown to be effective.  Over time, some of these programs have a very clear long-term training effect.  Transfer is obviously important because you want to see benefits in real life, but what I think is missing in the public debate is that, beyond any doubt, there is a training effect. That means that by using some of these programs now, you can still see clear benefits six months or one year from now, or (in one study) five years from now. And more training seems to always be better than less training – no ceiling has been found to the level of neuroprotection one can achieve through mental stimulation.

It may become more like the physical fitness industry, especially if consumers develop a fitness approach to cognitive training, with realistic expectations and they do their own homework to choose the right program.  There are so many programs — programs with more science behind them tend to be more expensive.  You can spend $400, $500, or $1500, or spend $9 per month on something and if it works, fine, and if it doesn’t, I only lost $9.  The priority now is to educate consumers and health professionals.

You wrote this book as a collaborative project with Dr. Goldberg.  You are not trained in this field, so how did you do it? How did you change as a person after being immersed in this space?

That’s a great question.  My background obviously introduces a cognitive bias as a user and as an educator.  My background is not neuroscience; it is both business and education. One of my favourite topics when I did my Masters in Education was how to internalize knowledge, how to acquire new skills, how learning is not just reading a book and absorbing abstract knowledge. There is a close connection between learning and education and neuropsychology. By talking with neuropsychologists, we saw that it was going to be a new field.  Boomers care more and more about their brains, there is more research, more programs, so we thought about how we could contribute.  When I talked first with Dr. Goldberg several years ago, we were thinking of developing our own programs but we decided not to because we would not have the credibility to play the role we are playing now, which is to educate and inform.  We thought that in such a vibrant and complex field, changing so quickly, the main bottleneck to address first was the lack of quality information.  The business model we have has no conflict or interest.  We don’t sell, develop, or endorse any products.

From a personal point of view what I really enjoy is that it forces me to learn every day something new and then I have to report back through our different publications.  We’re interacting with scientists all the time.  Right now we have neuroscientists worldwide who participate in our content exchange program, so they get free access to our report in exchange for them summarizing the key findings of their own published research and the implications for the future.  I love learning, love adapting myself to new environments, new realities, and engaging a community to disseminate findings and shape an emerging field.  So being able to work in a field like this one, moving so quickly, was a perfect fit for my personal interest and my professional entrepreneurship abilities.

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Did you miss the previous two posts in this interview series? Be sure to catch: