A spate of recent news coverage on brain fitness and "brain training" reflects a growing interest in natural, non-drug-based interventions to keep our brains sharp as we age. This interest is very timely, given the aging population, increasing Alzheimer's rates, and soaring health care costs that place more emphasis than ever on prevention and changing lifestyle.
This past Tuesday, the MIT Club of Northern California, the American Society on Aging, and SmartSilvers sponsored an event on The Emerging Brain Fitness Software Market: Building Better Brains to explore the realities and myths of this growing field. The panel was moderated by Zack Lynch, Executive Director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, and composed of a venture capitalist and 4 CEOs of companies in the field (including my company SharpBrains.com -- for full disclosure). Before the panel, I had the chance to present an overview of the state of the Brain Fitness Software Market based on our upcoming report to be released on March 4th.
Why are we talking about this field at all? Well, for one, an increasing number of companies are achieving significant commercial success in packaging "brain exercise". An example is the line of Nintendo games, such as Brain Age and Brain Training, that have shipped over 15 million units worldwide despite limited scientific support, since 2005. What is less visible is that a number of companies and scientists are partnering to bring products to market with a more solid clinical validation.
Who is buying these products? Yes, of course, many adults over 50 who want to protect their memory are among the pioneers. 78 million baby boomers are eager to try new approaches. A growing number of retirement communities and nursing homes are offering programs to their residents to expand their usual fitness and social activities. And we can't forget about K12 education: certain brain fitness software packages have shown they can help kids who have dyslexia and related difficulties.
Is there science behind these claims? Do these products work? It depends on how we define "work". If "working" means quantifiable short-term improvements after a number of weeks of systematic "brain training" to improve specific cognitive skills, then the answer is that a number of programs do seem to work. If , on the other hand, "working" means measurable long-term benefits, such as better overall brain health as we age, or lower incidence of Alzheimer's symptoms, the answer is that circumstantial evidence suggests they may, but it is still too early to tell.
Are there any public policy implications? We certainly believe that there are. The Center for Disease Control recently partnered with the Alzheimer's Association to develop a comprehensive Cognitive Health roadmap to better guide research efforts and improve public education on the lifestyle habits that every proud owner of a brain could benefit from following. Given the high rates of traumatic brain injuries and stress disorders found in a large number of the men and women coming home from the Iraq war, the military is investing heavily in research to help identify problems to develop tools to solve them, and we expect that research will translate into wider health applications. No presidential candidate, to our knowledge, has directly addressed his or her priorities in the cognitive health realm but, given the growing importance and economic impact of brain-related disorders, we expect that to happen soon.
What are some trends that executives and investors should be looking at to understand this growing market? Let me make a few predictions:
1) An increased emphasis on Brain Maintenance, from retirement communities to gyms and health clubs. Will health clubs one day offer brain fitness programs, and perhaps "brain coaches"? We think so.
2) Better and more widely available assessments of cognitive function will enable of all us to establish an objective baseline of how our minds are evolving, identify priorities for "workouts" and lifestyle interventions, and help us measure progress. Science-fiction? Not really. there are already pretty good tests used in clinical and medical environments, the challenge will be to refine and package those assessments in a consumer-friendly way.
3) We will see more and better computer-based tools, each of which may be more appropriate to work on specific priorities. Just as we find a variety of machines in health clubs today, in the future we can expect different programs tailored to train specific cognitive skills.
4) More non-computer based tools will also provide much value. There is more and more research on how meditation and cognitive therapy, to mention 2 examples, can be very effective in literally re-wiring parts of the brain.
5) Insurance Companies will introduce incentives for member who want to follow brain fitness programs. Perhaps even companies will offer such programs to employees to attract and retain mature workers who want access to the best and the latest innovations to keep their minds sharp.
Now, this being a pretty new field, the panel discussed several open questions, that will only be clarified with time:
- What is the right business model? are we talking about content-driven edutainment? or therapeutic applications, perhaps with some regulations by the FDA? selling software products? online subscriptions?
- What is the killer application? fun games with unproven brain benefits? programs that improve the mental skills involved in specific activities, such as driving? applications that help slow down the progression from Mild Cognitive Impairment to full-blown Alzheimer's symptoms?
- How will consumers and institutions receive quality information and education to navigate through the emerging research and the overwhelming number of new programs, separating reality from hype?
In summary, what were the main take-aways from the event?
1. Research indicates that a number of cognitive abilities (attention, memory...) can be assessed and trained
2. An emerging market is starting to develop-growing from an estimated $100m in 2005 to $225m in 2007, in the US alone-, and is poised to keep growing at significant rates.
3. Many companies are currently selling products direct to consumers (as well as through institutions) with sometimes unclear claims -- this threatens to confuse consumers and present a major obstacle to the growth and credibility of the sector.
These topics, and more, and what we cover in depth in our upcoming report "The State of the Brain Fitness Software Market 2008," to be released on March 4th at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. If interested, stay tuned!