It’s the brain wave; a new market sector that is expected to reach $8 billion in revenue by 2015. Last week, it hit the North Shore.
Penny Wilson stands by a table crowded with colourful puzzles and card games. She’s slim, freshly dressed and her sandy-coloured hair falls neatly over her shoulders. She’s also sharp.
“I want to make rock stars out of neuroscientists,” she says.
Wilson has opened Canada’s first brain fitness-inspired retail space. Located in the heart of Ambleside, Nognz sells computer games, puzzles, crosswords and books all directed at exercising one’s word skills, coordination, critical thinking, memory and focus. Besides these products, the store organizes games nights, brain boot camps and online programs.
“I want to be the Running Room of brain fitness,” says the former marketing executive.
Wilson dreams of a world in which people can name the brain’s lobes with the same ease as listing our major muscle groups. Armed with this knowledge, individuals will be able to pinpoint what they need to work on and move forward, much the same as physical training, she says.
“I want people to learn what it is like to exercise the five areas of the brain,” Wilson adds.
The store’s product manager and scientific director, Justin Davis, is seated at a computer beside a man with silver hair. On screen is an image of a phone. A female voice says a phone number and later, the player has to type in the correct digits. After that exercise, it’s off to the game’s parking lot to play meter maid, a memory game in which the player must recall which car owners have tipped the meters.
Before taking this job, Davis hung out with worms. The then-University of Western Ontario student was studying how worms remember things. He later earned his PhD in neuromechanics at the University of British Columbia where he examined the nervous system function that allows us stand up and be balanced.
In the past 10 years there have been great strides in neurosciences, but there’s a disconnect in getting the new knowledge to public use, Davis says. Tired of working in labs, he wanted to translate these advances into people’s lives.
“A lot of researchers are picking up on the benefits of brain training,” Davis says. “Now it is time to really test it.”
There is no question that, no matter how old, the human brain can change depending on one’s experience. This modern theory, know as neuroplasticity, has opened up the door to a wide range of ideas, everything from brain plasticity pills to training tools, says Max Cynader, director of Vancouver’s Brain Research Centre. But he says the jury is out on how effective brain fitness exercises really are.
In September 2009, Lab UK launched a scientific study, which involved 13,000 participants completing a six-week brain-training session. At the end of the experiment, researchers concluded there was no evidence to support playing these games can meaningfully boost brainpower. What the study did find is that people who played the games did get better at the specific task — practise makes perfect.
There are lots of things happening to the brain as we age, Cynader says. Brain volume and weight decreases. On average this mass of protein and fat loses five to 10 per cent of its heft between the ages of 20 and 90. Given the tremendous amount of variables, it’s more difficult to pinpoint certain exercises for one’s brain than other muscle groups, Cynader says. But it’s not a “crazy” concept.
“Whether these tests can do that is the question,” Cynader says.
Unlike the drills that drugs go through by organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, games claiming health benefits such as memory gains haven’t undergone the same clinical trials, Cynader notes.
“Some of [the companies] have done scientific experiments that are published in peer review papers,” he says, adding they don’t meet clinical trial standards.
So far there are more questions than answers — do improvements last, what are you comparing any improvements to and to whom are you comparing improvements?
Cynader isn’t ruling out such improvements can occur with the proper technique. Cynader is studying how to strengthen weakened pathways in the brain. To do this, the centre must utilize millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
In the meantime, there are proven things one can do to keep one’s brain healthy, he notes. A not so obvious one is physical exercise.
“Exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells,” he says.
With seniors making up 25 per cent of the Canadian population by 2036, more people are looking for ways to keep their minds fit. Being a member of Silver Harbour Seniors Centre’s computer class keeps Darrell Derban on the ball, the 82-year-old North Vancouver resident says, while playing on his cellphone. The club’s 36 members gather in the computer room to share ideas and solve computer problems. Derban bought his first computer in 1982 and the machines continue to challenge him today.
“I find them fascinating,” he says.
A number of Derban’s family members were hit by Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a story thousands of Canadians face every year. The disease is the most common form of dementia in Canada, making up 64 per cent of all dementia diseases.
Learning computer shortcuts, new programs and playing games has helped Derban keep his memory, he says.
“I come here as much as I can,” Derban proudly states.
Over in West Vancouver, at the seniors’ activity centre, Fred Titcomb gets ready to count the centre’s earnings from its services for the day.
“I never use a calculator,” he says.
Titcomb has volunteered at the centre for 30 years. He arrives at the building at 8:30 a.m., works until 11:40 a.m., walks home to cook himself lunch and then returns to volunteer until 3 p.m. Titcomb says he’s always had an active mind and been “a fun guy.” He can recall all his memories back to the age of six when he lived in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Longevity runs in his family. Titcomb’s dad lived to 100, his grandfather to 94 and his mother passed away at 91 years of age.
When Titcomb’s wife passed away 17 years ago, it was the activity centre that kept him going, he says.
“Belonging to a place like this has been my life,” Titcomb says.
Social interaction is an important part of keeping one’s noggin healthy, says Ed Kry, Capilano University’s Eldercollege board chair. It’s one of the reasons Kry attended the college himself. Up until recently, social interaction and the curiosity to learn were the primary reasons seniors signed onto Eldercollege courses, but not any more.
“That is changing, as more and more are discovered that there are health benefits [with learning],” he says.
The college currently has 250 members enrolled, all 55 years of age and older. The average age of attendees hovers between 65 and 75 years old. No grades are handed out; the classes are solely designed for the enjoyment of learning.
“We have people into their 90s,” Kry says.
One great thing about this so-called brain wave is it has got people talking about keeping one’s marbles shiny, he says. And no matter what direction people choose, whether it is a card game, club or college course, Kry says any kind of mental stimulation is a good thing.
“The more it is used, the more it will stay healthy,” Kry says.