Brain Fitness Industry Growing Rapidly
> 3/14/2008 7:57:48 AM

Sharp Brains, a business research firm, released The State of the Brain Fitness Software Market 2008 Report earlier this week. We reported last year about the nascent brain fitness industry, but it was not then clear whether the technology would be more than a passing fad. With this latest report showing that the market grew from $100 million in 2005 to $225 million in 2007, the industry has demonstrated a vitality that requires serious consideration.

Sharp Brains is not a disinterested observer-- it has ties to brain fitness products-- but major newspapers too are paying attention to the growth of the brain fitness industry. A few months before the report, Forbes, a magazine with a decidedly business-savvy readership, spoke positively about the potential for growth. This week, Reuters published a long analysis of the industry and the divergent ways that it can evolve. The Reuters article brings up the interesting split between entertaining games with no evidence to back their cognitive benefits and software that has proven itself through the scientific process.

Nintendo has had considerable success convincing players that its games can bring both enjoyment and health benefits. Its Brain Age series was a smash-hit in Japan and did quite well in the United States by selling under the tag-line "Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day." With the introduction of the Nintendo Wii and its motion-sensing controllers, nursing homes across the country have been using the games to maintain the mental and physical health of their vulnerable elderly populations. The Brain Age games were developed with the close guidance of Professor Ryuta Kawashima, a famous Japanese neuroscientist, but Nintendo has refrained from making any official scientific claims. Doing so would force them to face FDA scrutiny.

There are some companies confident enough to ask for FDA screening. NovaVision certainly does not have backers as charismatic as Mario, but it did have enough peer-reviewed studies on its side to win FDA approval. Their Vision Restoration Therapy is marketed foremost as an evidence-based product that can stimulate the brain to restore function after an injury. Nowhere on their website is the entertainment value of the at-home software therapy mentioned. Other companies are trying to follow this model. Jonas Jendi, CEO of Cogmed, explained his adherence to this approach:

I think it will be very difficult to make money in the field of games, even though I think a lot of people will try. Our approach is to prove our product works through proper research.

Cogmed does have some studies to back the claim that it can help ameliorate the deficits of ADHD. Dr. Stephen Bozylinski studied 35 ADHD children who underwent the Cogmed Working Memory Training for five weeks, and approximately 90% showed significant benefits immediately after finishing. Even seven months later, 80% retained benefits in working memory, impulse control, and planning. However, this experiment did not include a control group, leaving open the possibility that children benefited only from the increased attention they received. Cogmed needs a lot more research if it wants to prove its claims, but it is on the right track.  

Few companies have gained FDA approval for their brain fitness products, but it is encouraging that many of them see this as a goal worth striving for. As the threat of dementia grows for aging baby-boomers, many of them will look desperately for a way to protect their brains just as they do yoga to maintain their bodies. Hopefully, the field will progress enough to offer them a realistic, evidence-based breakdown of the available brain fitness programs.

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