Video: Cognitive Calesthenics

By Hampton Pearson D.C. Correspondent
CNBC
updated 2/18/2005 9:50:41 AM ET 2005-02-18T14:50:41
PART 1 OF A 3-PART SERIES

Think of it as taking your brain to the gym.

A cutting edge mental training program — from a company bent on changing the way we age — is offering new hope of a vibrant retirement for seniors and the Baby Boomers not far behind them.

The Rossmoor Retirement Community in northern California is a would-be paradise for the more than 10,000 residents over 55 who are living here. They golf, they socialize, and they relax.

They also make time for ambitious activities — like a digital photography class. These folks are willing to do just about anything to stay stimulated and strong.

“Fear of mental deterioration is a real concern of older people,” said Len Krauss, 75, a Rossmoor resident who runs the computer club there.

So when researchers from Posit Science Corporation went searching for people to test drive technology that could help reverse aging, they approached the computer club and asked for about 150 volunteers. They got more than 600.

Were they lining up for a sip from the fountain of youth? Close. Dr. Michael Merzenich, Posit's Chief Scientific Officer, describes the so-called “cognitive fitness” products as “a set of training tools that will be designed to rejuvenate the processing machinery of an older brain …  to improve its functionality so that it has the functionality of a brain at a younger stage or point in life.”

Bringing 'neuroplasticity' to market
Merzenich, who helped invent the cochlear ear implant, leads a scientific team that has more than 50 patents and the backing of many esteemed global research institutes. They're using more than $7 million in venture capital to validate science known as “neuroplasticity” and then commercialize it.

The current software suite — still a work in progress — uses both a human trainer and an “e-coach.” Volunteers run through a series of challenging mental exercises. The program automatically adjusts — pushing each individual to the limit.

“We start with language and the operations of language and focus/pound on this critical modality for receiving information,” said Merzenich.

Undivided attention and clear listening move the mind through the program's cognitive calisthenics. This boot camp for the brain takes forty sessions over a six- to eight-week period.

The end game of all these mind games is improved mental function, including listening, seeing, problem solving, fine motor skills and walking and balance.

Posit Science CEO Jeff Zimman says has yet to decide which markets to target.

“We consider anyone who is forty or over as somebody who might benefit from the programs,” he said.

Down the road he believes the technology may be used to treat chronic pain, depression and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease — all competitive, multi-billion-dollar medical technology markets.

And to entice the younger crowd, “they could as easily be on a set-top box, or on a handheld device or on a PDA or a cellphone,” said Zimman.

To succeed, Posit Science will need continued support from the seniors, who are the lifeblood of the research and a source of priceless feedback.

“We learned that some of the sound stimuli that we ask people to listen are too hard for them to hear at first,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke, the company's V.P. of Research and Outcomes. “We need to make them easier.” Back at Rossmoor, the volunteers say the workout changed their lives.

“I can now remember phone numbers better,” said Krauss.

Ballroom dancer Diane Goldsmith can now keep up with her light-speed, Generation Y grandkids.

“I’ve told them now ‘I don’t care how fast you speak to me,’” she said. “I’m with it. I’m right on top. So I won’t have to say ‘What did you say?’”

Because the first generation product is targeted for voluntary use by generally healthy people, the company doesn't have to go through the typical regulatory maze.

And if all goes according to plan, they hope to have a complete product suite to rollout in select markets by the end of the year.

CNBC producer Steve Lewis contributed to this report.

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