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Doctor points to a section of the brain on an MRI scan. (Hayden Bird)
Doctor points to a section of the brain on an MRI scan. (Hayden Bird)


Cogniciti aims for healthy brains Add to ...

Out with the old, in with the new. But what if the old could become new - or at least newer - again?

That's the question being asked by Cogniciti, a new for-profit company that will create and market products designed to help adults extend their memories and cognitive abilities.

The Toronto-based business is a partnership between two non-profit organizations, Baycrest and the MaRS Discovery District, an organization that helps science, technology and social entrepreneurs build their companies.

Cogniciti may have just launched in December, 2009, but it's been a long time coming. Twenty years of brain research at Baycrest's Research Centre for Aging and the Brain precede it, Baycrest chairman Anthony Melman says. "Science has matured to a level where we can now provide tools to people who are aging to keep their brains functioning in a much more effective way," he says. "Where we are with brain fitness is where the world was 40 years ago with physical fitness."

The company's first product, Memory@Work, targets the aging brain in the workplace. "We see the impact of changes in our brains on our ability to be successful at work," says Baycrest CEO William Reichman. "We don't want to be shown the door because we're not as effective as our younger colleagues. And that's a sensibility among baby boomers that's quite widespread," he says, pointing to the fact that one in three workers in North America will be 50 and older in 2010.

Memory@Work is Cogniciti's first product not only because of the opportunity the ballooning baby boomer population presents, but also because it's the most commercially ready and will be rolled out this year. Baycrest researchers have already piloted a version of the product with 120 participants. Among other positive results, participants reported an improved ability in remembering job-related tasks and information.

Where the pilot program focused on one-on-one lectures followed by pen and paper exercises, Cogniciti's product will comprise group workshops followed by computer games and exercises designed to sharpen memory and improve problem-solving and multi-tasking skills. Participants will also have access to one-on-one coaching via phone and Internet. Cogniciti will partner with existing corporate wellness program distributors to sell Memory@Work to corporate clients, at a cost comparable to that of other wellness-at-work programs. Corporate training courses typically cost between $250 and $1,000 per employee.

"We have different kinds of memory and different techniques suit each type," says Veronika Litinski, MaRS's business lead for Cogniciti. "The workshop teaches participants what kind of memory they're using in certain situations and what techniques will work best."

For example, committing something to memory when you're distracted requires a different technique than remembering something you only need to recall in the short term.

One exercise taught in the workshop, and later enforced in computer exercises, is known as space repetition. The most effective way to commit something to long-term memory, such a phone number, is to repeat it at increasing time intervals. Mass repetition, which is what many of us are tempted to do, won't work. "Repeating it 20 times in a row will not make any difference," Ms. Litinski says.

Here's what will: Repeat the phone number at 30 seconds, 90 seconds, three minutes, five minutes. "You'll remember it for the rest of your life," she says.

Who's to say any of it will actually work? Cold, hard, scientific facts, says Ms. Litinski. "Credible outcomes and data drive Cogniciti's strategy," she says. "Cogniciti is uniquely well positioned for the corporate market because of its strong affiliation with Baycrest and its data-centric product development approach," she adds, noting that Baycrest scientists have published extensively on the validity of the techniques used in Memory@ Work.

In one study, the results of which were published in the January, 2007 issue of the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, participants experienced a 15- to 40-per-cent improvement in their cognitive functions after using the program, with similar techniques to those of Memory@Work.

But the challenges ahead for Cogniciti are clear. For one thing, most people aren't sure what to make of brain fitness software. Sixty-five per cent of people surveyed in the 2009 State of the Brain Fitness Software Market Report from U.S.-based market research firm SharpBrains agreed/strongly agreed with this statement: "I don't really know what to expect from products making brain claims."

Aside from working in a research field that remains murky, the company faces roadblocks common to any new business. "We're really at stage one," Mr. Melman says. "The key challenge will be to determine what's the right strategic plan," he says. "That starts with ensuring we have both the right internal and external people involved."

And hence the Baycrest-MaRS partnership. Baycrest brings its world-renowned research to the company. In January, 2009, an international panel led by the University of California at Berkeley ranked the institution as a world-class cognitive neuroscience program and called its scientists "probably the best in the world."

Baycrest brings another must-have to Cogniciti: financial backing through its Centre for Brain Fitness, which launched last year with a $10-million investment from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, plus $10-million in donor support. MaRS offers expertise in other areas, such as branding and marketing, and access to experts in the gaming and employee-benefit fields. MaRS provides executive leadership for Cogniciti.

The company currently has no dedicated staff of its own, but plans to assemble a team as it becomes more established. In the meantime, it will hire key players on a contract basis, in addition to drawing on members of MaRS and Baycrest to oversee business and product development.

Cogniciti's priority, Mr. Reichman emphasizes, is to sell products that are scientifically proven to work. "We're not going to get entangled in something like what's happened with homeopathic remedies or nutriceuticals, where companies can put out products that are not scientifically validated," he says. "If the products can't be demonstrated to be effective, we don't want to introduce them."

The team is confident in Memory@Work's validity based on Baycrest's previous positive studies, says Ms. Litinski. Further studies on Cogniciti's products are planned for 2010 and will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Beyond scientific validity, Cogniciti's goal is to make products that are engaging. "Even if it's obvious they benefit you, if they're not fun, it's hard to get people to do them," Mr. Reichman says.

In tandem with Memory@Work, Cogniciti is developing more general brain exercises and games that can be played on Web-based and hand-held devices, expected to be commercially available in 2011. Immediate products focus on baby boomers, but "since brain aging begins at birth, we may branch out beyond that population," Mr. Reichman says.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Cogniciti faces is the steep competition, says Mr. Melman, who points to gaming giant Nintendo and other players like Posit Science. And they've got something Cogniciti doesn't. "There's a tremendous amount of capital there, much more so than what Cogniciti has," he says. "In terms of competitiveness, we're uncompetitive at this point. We don't even have a product in the market. But I have no doubt that's temporary."

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