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The dawn of cognitive technology

Cognitive activities increase the number of connections between the neurons. (Image credit: CGW )

Cognitive technology is a new and evolving field which combines the interactive qualities of modern computers with the knowledge acquired by cognitive psychology to create tools that can preserve and improve our cognitive abilities. In this article, we chose to cover one of the pioneers in this field, the Israeli company CogniFit, which has developed a unique adaptive technology that enables its software to learn the users abilities, and based on this data, create a personalized cognitive training program.

Special: Read IsraCast’s review on CogniFit’s new product - MindFit.

According to the Alzheimers Association there are currently about 4.5 million people in the U.S. alone living with the disease. This number has more than doubled since 1980 and is expected to continue growing over the next decade and beyond. As common as Alzheimers became in modern western society, most cases of cognitive decline are still unrelated to the disease and are thought to affect a large percentage of the general population as the years go by. Modern life presents a complex diversity of cognitive tasks, many unthought-of only a century ago. The advancement in both neuroscience and cognitive science in recent years allowed for better understanding of the mechanisms responsible for various tasks such as retaining short and long term memories, dividing attention, assessing time and distance and a range of other cognitive tasks. It was therefore no surprise when in 1999 Shlomo Breznitz, an eminent professor of psychology and former president of the Haifa University retired from the academy in order to pursue the dream of creating the first scientifically based cognitive training software that is aimed at preserving and improving the cognitive abilities of adults in a variety of cognitive tasks.

The science behind cognitive technology:  

Prof. Shlomo Breznitz

Founded by Prof. Breznitz, CogniFit is one of the pioneers in the new field of cognitive technology. In order to appreciate the technology, we first need to understand a few things about the underlying biological and cognitive basis. On the biological side we can count at least four basic reasons why it is important to stay cognitively active.

  1. Blood supply - Active brain cells (neurons) need a better blood supply, and get a better blood supply than idle ones. This preferential supply of oxygen and a variety of nutrients enhances their function. Neurons are particularly vulnerable to inadequate oxygen supply, and their activation ensures that they will not starve for oxygen and die.
  2. Dendrites sprouting - As the activity of neurons increases, so does their tendency to sprout dendrites which are slender, typically branched projections of nerve cells that function as information pathways between brain cells. Consequently, the more active a particular brain cell is, the more connections to neighboring cells it develops. It is estimated that a single neuron can have up to thirty thousand such connections, making it a centre of a highly developed network of activity. One outcome of belonging to such a network is that the chances of being stimulated by others are also higher, thus increasing the chances of future activation. Neurons that for some reason reduce their activity tend, over time, to lose this connectivity.
  3. Nerve Growth Factor - Active neurons enhance the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), a substance that contributes to the maintenance of healthy neurons. Since brain cells can often be quite old, their continuous maintenance is of primary importance to their function. The higher the cognitive challenge, the greater the secretion of this beneficial NGF.
  4. Regeneration of new brain cells - Recent research discovered that contrary to accepted common wisdom, there is regeneration of new brain cells throughout the entire life span of a human being. Stem cells develop in the part of the brain called the hippocampus (an area closely related to memory consolidation), and migrate inside the brain to the area with the highest need for "reinforcement" of function. Once the stem cells reach that area, they mature and learn from the surrounding cells how to perform their function.
Playing Chess exercises only a narrow band of cognitive skills.

In the last few years a growing amount of research had shown that participating in cognitively stimulating activities had the affect of reducing mental decline as well as lowering the risk of Alzheimers. Only recently a research conducted by Rivka Inzelberg from the Department of Neurology in the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera, had shown that staying active delays the development of Alzheimers disease.Many people use various games and hobbies such as chess, card games and crossword puzzles as ways of keeping cognitively active. Dr. Smadar Birnboim, cognitive specialist at CogniFit, explained in an interview to IsraCast the benefits of using CogniFits latest cognitive softwareMindFitover such traditional games and hobbies: "Certain kind of games and hobbies served us well for many generations as tools for sharpening our wits. However, even the best among them, such as chess and bridge, have some very obvious limitations. Chief among them is the narrow band of cognitive skills that they exercise. In the case of chess, it is primarily visual perception, long term focusing of attention, and memory for similar positions. Experienced chess players can recall hundreds of important games played by themselves or others and rely heavily on experience. Many moves become almost automatic, drawing on well rehearsed routine openings. Bridge trains short-term memory and some basic combinatorial skills. The bidding conventions become routine. Crossword puzzles exercise almost exclusively retrieval from lexicon, and are often repetitious. Different from the above activities that specialize on specific cognitive skills, MindFit systematically trains a wide range of basic cognitive skills needed for daily functioning."

Using a computer as a cognitive training tool brings in an entirely different level of possibilities. The interactive nature of the computer along with its ability to present a variety of tasks makes it an ideal cognitive trainer. Maybe the most important aspect of using the computer to train cognitive abilities, and one which is unique to MindFit, is the ability to adapt to the level of the user and to present a training program that is specifically tailored to that individuals needs.

MindFit: Different cognitive tasks

The effectiveness of MindFit has been tested continuously over the last several years. In 2005 CogniFit performed a test which included the results of 119 users of the MindFit software. The users had finished a period of training with the software and sent their anonymous results back to the company where they underwent statistical evaluation. The results showed improvement ranging from 7.5% in working memory to 18% in visual short term memory. Other cognitive abilities such as simple reaction time, auditory short term memory and eye-hand coordination were also improved by more than 10%. Seeking outside validation, CogniFit is currently working with a large number of research institutions, both in Israel and around the world to examine the influence of its cognitive software on various groups of people. One such research is currently being conducted by Dr. Nir Giladi in the Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (the second largest Medical Center in Israel).

MindFit: Different cognitive tasks

In this research results gained from healthy individuals using the MindFit software are compared with software users with early signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a medical condition which affects new memory consolidation (about 80% of patients with MCI develop Alzheimers disease within six years). Another Alzheimers related study will be carried out shortly in collaboration with a UK team headed by Professor Susan Greenfield of Oxford University. Two other studies which are not Alzheimers related are currently taking place in Israel. The first is conducted in the Carmel Medical Center in Haifa by Prof. Ariel Miller who tested the MindFit software on patients with Multiple Sclerosis. The second research, conducted by Dr. Iris Haimov from the Emek Yezreel College, is evaluating the effectiveness of the MindFit software on patients suffering from sleeping disorders.

Different cognitive skills - different cognitive products:

FleetFit.

It took more than three years of painstaking work to complete the first version of the MindFit software but the lessons learned from this hard work are now being incorporated into a variety of products aimed at a number of target audiences. Besides MindFit, which is aimed at private use and retiree centers, CogniFit has also created another range of cognitive software aimed at drivers and road users of all ages. The software family named DriveFit is marketed by the company as a way to enhance driving skills and abilities. DriveFit is not a driving simulator but rather a cognitive software which presents the user with a range of cognitive tasks which can help him to improve his driving skills. Although driving is usually considered an automatic task it still requires a high level of attention especially given the possible risk involved with making a mistake. Driving also requires the use of a variety of cognitive skills, much of which can be improved by reparative training. Eye-Hand coordination, speed and distance estimation, the ability to quickly shift attention, and various other cognitive skills are all highly important for driving and avoiding car accidents. The first DriveFit product named DriveFit-L was launched three years ago and was intended for young people taking driving lessons.

FleetFit.

DriveFit-L tests the cognitive abilities of the young driver and prepares a personal training program suited specifically for his or her needs. The software is already being used in the UK, Canada, France, Israel, Finland, Spain and Poland. In the UK results have shown a 16% improvement in drivers test passes in an experiment conducted by the British School of Motoring (BSM). The BSM has already incorporated the software into its drivers training. Both the Israeli Air Force and Israeli Police have recently started pilot programs to test the effectiveness of FleetFit, cognitive software belonging to the DriveFit family and aimed at reducing car accidents inside organizations.A different version of DriveFit is called Golden DriveFit and is aimed at the general population over the age 55 (both drivers and pedestrians). The software is marketed by CogniFit as a way to enhance the mental processes associated with daily mobility, making the older person a safer and more confident driver, pedestrian, and bicycle rider.

CogniFit continues to search for new uses for its cognitive technology and has a number of products under development which are planned for release next year. IsraCast will continue monitoring this emerging field of cognitive technology and report on new developments taking place.

Iddo Genuth

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