Special Report Training and HR Technology–Retrain the Brain

By Ed Frauenheim

Jan. 17, 2008

Software tools to keep the brain fit are headed to the workplace.

    The products have been making a splash in the consumer market in recent years as older Americans wrestle with memory loss and other cognitive declines. And now vendors of “brain fitness” software are beginning to see employers as another fertile market, especially given the desire of baby boomers to stay in the workforce for years to come.

    A host of challenges face this nascent industry. They include doubts about the effectiveness of the software, concerns that exercises in front of a computer will bore people, and the prospect that employees in their 40s, 50s and 60s will feel stigmatized signing up for what could be considered brain rehab.

    But advocates are confident the burgeoning field of brain health is far more than a fad, and companies are likely to see significant benefits in areas such as productivity and retention through the use of the new software tools.

    Posit Science, a San Francisco-based firm, says several employers are testing its software this year. Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program has been shown to improve the memory of people 60 years or older by 10 years or more, and the company’s CEO, Jeff Zimman, expects solid results in corporate trials as well.

    “This is going to be a hot area,” he says.

The players
    The brain fitness arena has its roots in scientific findings during the past two decades that the brain is fundamentally “plastic”—capable of rewiring itself even late in life. That’s good news, because experts also note that brain functioning begins to fall off as early as age 25. Among the key researchers in the field is Posit Science founder Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco who was recently featured in a PBS program on brain fitness.

    To combat the dulling of the mind and stave off the horrifying effects of dementia, a host of vendors now tout brain training software programs, including Happy, CogniFit, Posit Science and Fit Brains. Video game company Nintendo also is a player with its Brain Age software.

Posit Science expects solid results in corporate testing trials of its software. “This is going to be a hot area.”
–Jeff Zimman, CEO, Posit Science

    The content of these programs varies. Happy, for example, offers games designed to work out five major brain functions: language, attention, memory, visual processing and “executive function,” which includes logical reasoning. One of Happy Neuron’s language games, “Split Words,” asks users to match the parts of words divided into two or more sections, with the help of a general category for the session such as “gardening.”

    Fit Brains plans this month to introduce games for a range of cognitive functions. By the end of March, it intends to add games as well as other features such as brain fitness metrics.

    Brain Age, built for the Nintendo DS mobile game device, runs users through activities such as solving math problems, playing sudoku puzzle games and reading literature aloud.

    Posit Science, meanwhile, works to improve memory and train the brain on basic processing skills. In one activity, users are asked to listen to two tones played in rapid succession, then decide whether the second was higher or lower than the first.

Benefit questioned
    The brain training software industry is new but promising. Brain Age and its sequel Brain Age 2 have together sold more than 14 million copies worldwide since 2005, says George Harrison, who was senior vice president of marketing at Nintendo of America before retiring from the company at the end of 2007. Nintendo’s brain games are inspired by the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, and they estimate the “age” of users’ brains based on their performance. But the products are pitched primarily as fun, Harrison says. “We haven’t done any scientific research to demonstrate any health claims,” he says.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Posit Science has had its software tested by researchers who have presented findings in scholarly journals and at conferences. In November, the company touted results of a study of 524 healthy adults 65 and older. Half of them completed up to 40 hours of the Posit Science program. The other half followed the advice that older people will benefit from new learning in different subject areas, and completed up to 40 hours of a computer-based educational training program on topics such as the history of Great Britain.

    Those in the Posit Science group showed “significantly superior” gains in standardized, clinical measures of memory equal to roughly 10 years, the company said in a statement. The company also said participants in the Posit Science program showed significant gains in how they perceived their memory and cognitive abilities, such as remembering names and phone numbers or where they had left their keys, as well as communication abilities and feelings of self-confidence.

Sector Stats
46.7%Percentage growth expected in number of U.S. workers age 55 and older between 2006 and 2016
23%Percentage of U.S. workforce expected to be composed of workers age 55 and older in 2016

    Even so, the degree to which software programs can slow the cognitive decline associated with aging has been questioned. Sandra Aamod, editor of the journal Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, offered a critical view of the products in a November New York Times opinion piece. A better bet, the authors argued, is physical exercise.

    “So instead of spending money on computer games or puzzles to improve your brain’s health, invest in a gym membership,” the authors wrote. “Or just turn off the computer and go for a brisk walk.”

    Some advocates for computer brain fitness products say software training should be part of a broader range of brain health activities, including walking and swimming.

    Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist and chief scientific officer of Fit Brains, suggests a five-part program for brain health, with attention to socializing, physical activity, mental stimulation, nutrition and spirituality.

Targeting the workforce
    Until now, companies haven’t paid much attention to brain health, Nussbaum says. He notes the way corporate health fairs typically have tables set up for diabetes and bone density. “There’s nothing at these health fairs focused on the brain,” he says.

    Corporate training departments also have ignored sharpening basic employee mental skills such as memory or language processing.

    The graying of the workforce may change that. The number of U.S. workers 55 and older is projected to grow by 46.7 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to a December report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate of expansion in the number of those older workers is nearly 5.5 times the 8.5 percent growth projected for the labor force overall. People 55 and older are expected to make up 23 percent of the workforce in 2016, up from 17 percent in 2006 and 12 percent in 1996.

There are questions about whether
the programs are interesting enough
to hold employees’ attention.
“I’m not convinced that over the long haul a baby boomer is going to take the time to sit down and do these computer exercises.”
–Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist and chief scientific officer Fit Brains

    Amid numbers like these, brain fitness software firms are eyeing the workplace as potentially lucrative.

    Michael Cole, founder and CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Fit Brains, says the “corporate wellness” market is a good fit for his firm. In other words, he imagines companies offering access to his software as a health benefit. Fit Brains is in talks with a company that already provides employees with software to track their physical fitness and nutrition.

    “It’s something we’re looking to get into,” Cole says. “There’s tremendous interest.”

    Nussbaum adds that company executives likely will invest in brain fitness for the sake of having sharper workers.

    “I imagine these CEOs want [employees’] brains to be highly efficient,” he says.

    Happy also envisions selling into the corporate market. Laura Fay, COO of the Mountain View, California-based company, says information workers are a promising target audience. “Staying sharp with language and executive-function skills is absolutely critical,” she says. “There’s significant benefit from a corporate worker standpoint.”

    Happy is a subsidiary of France-based Scientific Brain Training, and in France the company has dabbled in workforce applications. A homeopathic products firm, for example, trained drivers with exercises designed to hone attentiveness and spatial skills.

    Posit Science’s Zimman gives the hypothetical situation of a 55-year-old employee who has 30 years of industry experience but a mind less sharp than that of an up-and-coming employee in his or her 30s. Boosting the memory and mental processing speed of the older worker could make a big difference, he says. “You can see how that worker could run circles around the young hotshot,” he says.

    At the same time, Zimman believes his software is likely to improve the performance of workers of all ages. And he likens the potential impact to the way companies regularly upgrade the processing power of their computers. “We’re asking can you make for more productive workers by refreshing their processing abilities—that they probably haven’t done, for the most part, since they were in the crib,” he says.

Early tests, challenges
    A hint of the workforce possibilities in brain training software can be seen in the use of Posit Science’s program by the Los Angeles Unified School District’s adult education program. The district has trained more than 200 people in the software as part of a pre-existing memory enhancement class, says Arlene Torluemke, who coordinates older-adult programs for the district. Many students in the program are volunteer employees at sites like hospitals, and they have credited the software for a better work experience thanks to a sharper mind, Torluemke says. “They’re appreciating it,” she says. “People are feeling more in charge.”

    Still, there are questions about whether the programs are interesting enough to hold employees’ attention. Among the skeptics is Nussbaum. “I’m not convinced that over the long haul a baby boomer is going to take the time to sit down and do these computer exercises,” he says. He says Fit Brains is working to make its games fun, personal and practical. Cole adds that the firm aims to create a sense of community around the exercises. He plans to make it possible for people to play a game together.

    Brain training software faces other possible challenges in the shape of neurosurgeons and pharmaceutical firms. Increased knowledge about the brain raises the prospect that surgical procedures will emerge that enhance the mind, perhaps with computer implants. Drugs already have been developed to combat Alzheimer’s disease, and there’s talk of “cosmetic neurology” in the near future, where humans can effectively control their brain chemistry.

    Zimman, though, isn’t worried much by those trends. He says people are wary of invasive surgery and pharmaceutical solutions. A Posit Science survey conducted in 2004 found that 88 percent of those questioned preferred brain fitness exercises to taking a pill.

    Even so, might not aging employees fear being labeled soft in the head—or worse—if they agree to train their brains? Zimman doubts the software tools generally will be looked on as rehabilitation therapy or anti-senility treatments. He says his firm wasn’t sure exactly what to call its program, but that early customers came up with the concept of “brain fitness”—a term that draws a positive connection with the physical fitness arena.

    “The boomer cohort is embracing it,” he says.

Workforce Management, January 14, 2008, p. 19-23Subscribe Now!

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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