Brain fitness is one of the fastest growing industries in North America whose value reached $265 million in 2008, according to industry market research leader SharpBrains. Neuroscience research has demonstrated that like your muscles, your brain can grow stronger and more agile through proper training and regular activity. Canadian-based Brain Center International (BCI) is making waves in the field by helping thousands of customers improve their brain performance each year.
BCI is the maker of NeuroActive Program, a brain training software which targets 16 specific brain functions. Unlike entertainment titles which claim to help your brain, BCI prides itself on its science-based, clinically-validated software. Through twenty-two different exercises users train a range of skills including various memory and visual-spatial functions, processing speed, selective attention and behaviour modification.
In an interview with Game Forward, BCI President and CEO Dr. Stephane Bergeron said that clinical trials of NeuroActive Program have shown average improvements of 20 percent in working memory and brain processing speed.
“The best example I can give is of myself,” said Dr. Bergeron. “I have a lot of trouble with facial memory, remembering names and faces. It’s difficult to see your neighbour down the street and not remember their name. Training with NeuroActive Program helped me improve this skill and made an impossible task possible.”
In fact, Dr. Bergeron adds, memory and especially that of names and faces—known as “social memory”—is the area with which people have the most trouble as cognitive decline sets in. But unlike previously believed, the mild cognitive decline that comes with age is not permanent and is reversible with proper training.
“While most people are now aware of the importance of physical fitness, they only start to pay attention to brain fitness when they notice this deterioration, around the age of 45 or 50,” says Dr. Bergeron. “Brain training at this time can completely reverse these effects.”
Research shows that those who perform these types of mental exercises experience less cognitive decline, slow it down and are less likely to suffer from dementia. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) research project funded by the National Institutes of Health found that in addition to maintaining high levels of brain activity in seniors, brain training can also slow the onset of Alzheimer’s. The disease is no longer thought to be exclusively tied to heredity but rather mainly attributed to a lack of physical exercise and mental stimulation.
But Dr. Bergeron emphasises that brain training can be helpful at any point in life, including with children. “If you do it while you are still in school you will benefit and make learning easier. Similarly, some businesses use this type of training to boost productivity and improve the performance of their employees.”
Game Forward had the opportunity to test out NeuroActive Program Complete Brain Training, the 2010 version of the all-in-one BCI training software. In this version, the exercises mainly take the form of short 2D graphic games, in which players need to rapidly click, reacting to various audio-visual stimuli or performing a given task in a limited time. Scheduled once every two days, each training session contains four exercises taking about 20 minutes to complete. The software allows up to three user profiles and also offers one guest profile.
A typical training session might look like this: in The Convenience Store, pick out rightly priced items adding up to the bill total; in Clearance Sale, select discounted red tags before they disappear; in The Library, appropriately group diagrams which evoke a similar theme; in The Rehearsal, select the shorter between two flashes of light or musical notes played.
Unlike some other serious brain training software, NeuroActive Program does not use baseline assessment as a snapshot of a user’s cognitive profile. Instead, the software builds a personalized training program by selecting exercises and their difficulty according to the user’s age, gender and education level.
“These parameters are then adjusted during the training, with dynamic difficulty settings that reflect your current abilities at that time—because brain abilities change several times a day,” said Dr. Bergeron. It is for that reason that he rejects the use of baseline assessments. They do not necessarily provide a reliable starting point because this snapshot does not offer a full picture of someone’s abilities, he explains.
When trying to remember a sequence of faces, or a telephone number backwards, you can really feel your mind working. These focused tasks noticeably stimulate certain brains functions leading to recognizable progress. After completing an exercise, users receive a score which they can compare to the average of their reference group.
Between scheduled sessions, players can use the custom training portion of the software to practice every exercise at any difficulty setting to further push themselves. This section is highly informative, providing details about each exercise such as the cognitive skills being used, examples of how these skills are applied in daily life and which regions of the brain these tasks activate.
Training with brain fitness software like NeuroActive Program helps build what is known as your cognitive reserve—your brain’s ability to resist and adapt to deterioration of the nervous system. By developing and strengthening neural pathways and synapses brain training exercises keep them young and healthy, and prevent them from failing.
However, when it comes to an active brain, an active body is more important than some would believe. Physical activity plays a direct role on brain power. As exercise increases your blood flow, the brain receives more oxygen and nutrients. It is with that concept in mind that BCI created the NeuroActive BrainBike, produced and distributed in collaboration with Exergame Fitness USA and MotionFitness.
The BrainBike is a stationary bike augmented with all-in-one computer on which the NeuroActive Program software is used. Available for commercial or residential use, the BrainBike includes a heart-rate monitor and a blue backlit super-twisted nematic (STN) display, which is said to offer a viewing angle of up to 270 degrees and the most comfortable visual colour combination to the human eye. To ensure that users remain active, a special mechanism designed by Gamercize forces users to pedal in order to activate the system’s wireless mouse.
The Gamercize technology “is more commonly seen with our under desk stepper to turn home and office computer time into active time. The patented principle is keep moving yourself to keep your inputs alive,” explains Richard Coshott, CEO of Gamercize. “We’ve seen great success with the low level of exercise on work productivity from (the interface), so I know the combination of moving body to speed the brain works!”
Making physical training incidental to the main activity is important because it improves conditioning in a subtle way, believes Coshott. “The stealth approach of Gamercize means you’re much more likely to have a lower perception of the effort you are expending, which in turn makes the exercise sustainable. The BrainBike gives the same experience.”
BCI struck a new distribution deal for BrainBike in the United States in December 2009. But the device is already found in two Florida fitness centres, in several Canadian gyms, as well as in a growing number of schools.
The concept is lauded by Phil Lawler, a retired gym teacher and now Director of Instruction and Outreach for PE4Life. With his help, the Naperville, Illinois school district boasts one of the most advanced physical education programs in the world which has trained schools in 40 states and hosted observers from ten foreign countries. There students experience what is dubbed “learning readiness PE” which focuses on health and fitness rather than sports.
Based on research outlining the impact of movement on the brain, classrooms are filled with stability balls, podiums, balance boards and stationary bikes rather than chairs and desks, all to improve students’ blood flow to the brain while learning. “In today’s schools, where [physical education] is sometimes taken out to favour academic, sit-down courses, students have less oxygen going to their brains, limiting their comprehension and recalling capacities,” explains Lawler.
To the teacher, the NeuroActive BrainBike is a promising tool which could find a welcome home in more American schools. Lawler is currently looking for funding to upgrade the schools’ stationary bikes with BrainBikes. Students in Wellington, Florida are some of the rare few who already have a BrainBike in their school. “It’s definitely shown a positive impact in my class,” said Kim Murray, a teacher at Panther Run Elementary School.
Tommy Seilheimer, Vice-President of Exergame Fitness USA, explains that there are significant benefits to the BrainBike which schools should consider. Using the device prepares and stimulates the brain for learning and training, counter-balancing regular classes in which kids sit all day and become drowsy. Students that use the BrainBike get so deep in thought that they forget that they are exercising, making it a fun way to get active. And not only do kids feel better physically but they also develop new social interactions. For example, most kids will circle one player and work in teams to answer questions, making it more than a one person workout.
In the future, Phil Lawler wishes to see BrainBikes in the back of every classroom for students to use when they need to stimulate their brains. One day he hopes schools might even offer BrainBikes with targeted exercises designed specifically for a subject area, like science, social studies, or reading software.
As we speak, the marketing opportunities for this type of tool are rapidly growing. “We’re looking at getting the BrainBikes into gyms,” said Seilheimer. “Instead of running with an iPod on or while watching television, some people might be interested in working their mind as well, wanting to focus and learn.”
As more people learn about the benefits of brain training as well as the intricate link between physical and mental fitness, Seilheimer expects to see the NeuroActive BrainBike steadily gain in popularity. In the meantime, BCI is developing a new software series, soon to be released, which will address specific sets of key functions for targeted training—further expanding its contribution to the brain fitness industry.