Posit Science Participating in the SharpBrains Summit in JanuaryEd. Note: we are live blogging selected sessions of this year’s SharpBrains Virtual Summit: Retooling Brain Health for the 21st Century.

8:33 AM: The session has ended. Alvaro Fernandez says there are more questions that Dr. Merzenich agrees to answer via email at a future date. We’ll be back to blog a couple more sessions today and tomorrow!

8:31 AM: Merzenich invites people to contact him if they’d like to collaborate on translating engineering and science to real-world help for people. There are fellowships available in the Brain Plasticity Institute – contact him at mike.merzenich@brainplasticity.com. He thinks there’s a tremendous future in this and is motivated to offering help to everyone on the planet.

Q&A portion begins. First question: how do we identify who needs what training and when? Merzenich answers that this is a hard problem, as is the issue of communicating with those people so they can self-assess to figure out what help they need, and be led to an understanding about what they need to do, then confirm that it’s helped them. This is something we’re working on. There is an overlap in strategies for anyone who has an issue in the brain, which makes it a bit easier– A good example is schizophrenia research conducted by Merzenich and colleagues, which shows that many different types of brain training are effective in that disorder (based on fMRI studies and behavioral data.)

Next question: How does this link to the previous talk by Molly Wagster (about the NIH toolbox for cognitive assessments)? Merzenich notes a disconnect between assessments in the “world of science” don’t always relate to how people want to do assessments in the “real world” so it’s a balance of valid assessments and something a person will actually do. It also depends on the condition; someone with a serious condition might be willing to go through a 1 hour assessment, but others might not do that. We need to make it more practical.

8:22 AM: The future: Merzenich and Posit Science are looking to use this technology for clinical indications; mental illness, schizophrenia, and so forth. This will have these features:

  1. web-based training on any platform (iPhone, Android, browser, iPad, etc) for nearly everyone
  2. rapid elaboration of training assets and (assessment strategies)
  3. neuroplasticity-based training as medicine

He predicts that for the future of applied neuroplasticity in general:

  1. A part of every well-ordered life
  2. Widely accepted neuroplasticity ‘clearinghouses’? (The landscape is confused by products that work and don’t work, a large part of what’s being done is unproven. We have to strengthen and grow institutions to validate it- as Alvaro has done with SharpBrains.)
  3. Help in many integrated forms (eg, training with movement, reflecting real-world ability, improving efficiency in training strategies)
  4. Revolution in neurological and psychiatric medicine (will be at the front of treating psychiatric disorders)

8:16 AM: Because of the desire to continue plasticity research in other populations, Merzenich founded Posit Science to create and test a scientifically validated training program for normal and clinical adult population.

One strategy was to purchase technology invented by Karlene Ball of University of Alabama, Birmingham and Daniel Roenker of University of Western Kentucky, known as UFOV (useful field of view) training. This technology had been validated by dozens of clinical trials to show that the training prevented depression , cognitive decline, and falls, lowered health costs, and much more. UFOV was incorporated into the Posit Science training.

There have been more than 30 controlled studies and meta-analyses (including IMPACT and ACTIVE.) Through hundreds of animal-model and human studies, we know that behavioral change = brain change.

8:11 AM: Dr. Merzenich begins with a brief history of plasticity: based on a long past of experimental psychology principles. Behavioral psychology led to the idea that you could change people’s behavior through therapy. After WW2, neuroscience believed that brains were only plastic or changeable in young children, and after that they became hard-wired and unchangeable. In the 1970s and 1980s, we learned that the brain can be plastic at any age. It’s now the predominant view in neuroscience. We also have ongoing progress at assessing and understanding the brain, getting better all the time. This can all help us learn about how we might use the brain’s own plasticity to improve our brains and our “failure modes” (eg depression, OCD, etc.)

In his UCSF lab, he started to see that in animal studies, you could demonstrate that plasticity could go either way–negative or positive–and control the changes. A collaboration with speech language expert Paula Tallal led to the development of Fast ForWord, used by 4,000 US school districts and having trained 4+ million children to use game-like brain plasticity exercises to drive positive changes in the learning abilities of reading-impaired and other children. The exercises have been validated by several controlled studies.

8:01 AM: Alvaro Fernandez is introducing Dr. Michael Merzenich, who will be starting his session, entitled “Past, Present, and Future of Applied Neuroplasticity.”