Always Stimulated, Never Stumped: Dakim BrainFitness
When my colleague Rex Mayreis visited his in-laws at their assisted living facility, he found them enthusiastic about a new machine in the lounge area. Called Dakim BrainFitness (dakim.com), the application runs on a free-standing computer with a touchscreen. In it, a friendly Midwestern fellow leads users through 20-minute sessions in which they complete exercises in six cognitive areas, including short-term memory, critical thinking, math, and language. The challenges are embedded in a folksy, multimedia interface that leads users down a cultural and historical recap of the United States in the 20th century. Its tests, developed in consultation with a team led by Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging, are based on standardized neurological assessment tools. Dakim uses individual accounts to track and adapt to each user’s progress.
Dakim BrainFitness was founded in 2001 by ad man Dan Michel, who, after witnessing his father’s 13-year battle with Alzheimer’s, set out to develop an automated program to enhance cognitive function in people age 60 and older, even those with mild to moderate dementia. According to Rick Sill, VP of sales, “The name Dakim is a combination of our founder, Dan Michel (Da) and his wife Kim. Dan is also the host and voice of our program. You may have picked up on his Chicago accent!”
Dakim is a best-seller in retirement homes and gerontologist offices, but it has never been offered at a public library. We thought that the program would be a great fit for our library’s mission to promote lifelong learning, so we asked for a trial. Once in place in our computer lab in January 2014, the machine generated instant demand, which we dubbed “Dakim madness!” The need was so great that, in late spring, our library foundation agreed to purchase two Dakim BrainFitness units for us. Our older patrons love it, proclaiming that their short-term memory has improved and that they can pay closer attention to details. Indeed, Dakim’s effectiveness has been documented in a clinical trial (Miller, KJ et al., “Effect of a Computerized Brain Exercise Program on Cognitive Performance in Older Adults,” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry , 2013; Vol. 21, No. 7, 2013, pp. 655–663; DOI:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.01.077; for the abstract, see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23602310).
To try Dakim BrainFitness, download a free trial to your computer (dakim.com/trial). Purchase the software for about $250. An entire stand-alone computer system with touchscreen (for those uncomfortable with computers) runs about $2,350.
Does It Work?
Can brain training really enhance the cognitive abilities of older people whose information processing speeds have slowed? Adam Gazzaley thinks it can. He has helped form a new company, Akili Interactive Labs (akiliinteractive.com) to develop a computer game that will diagnose weaknesses in the brain and then challenge and strengthen those specific deficiencies. Called Project: EVO, this game will engender the immersiveness and conscious engagement necessary to help the brain grow new structures to heal itself.
Gazzaley is experimenting with the new virtual reality headset Oculus Rift (oculusvr.com) to deepen the submersive experience of the game and perhaps to enhance its effectiveness. Project: EVO will not be available commercially. Akili Interactive is pursuing funding from pharmaceutical companies to get FDA approval to have Project: EVO prescribed for such maladies as ADHD, depression, and autism as well as dementia.
Still, most studies show cognitive training to have only mild benefits. George Rebok, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, conducted a decade-long assessment of the effects of brain training for older people, “Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults” (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society , Vol. 62, No. 1, 2014, pp. 16–24; onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jgs.12607/pdf).
“The people who had training in reasoning and processing speed continued to do slightly better than the control group in tests 10 years out. The memory group didn’t,” says Rebok. “When it came to the questionnaire on 19 tasks of daily living, 60% of the people who had training said they were doing as well as they had 10 years before, compared to 50% of the people who had no training” (“Older Folks Get Modest Memory Boost From Brain Boot Camp,” Nancy Shute, NPR, Jan. 13, 2014; npr.org/blogs/ health/2014/01/13/262096403/older-folks-get-modest-memory-boost-from-brain-boot-camp).
“These are modest effects,” Rebok notes. “But even small effects can have major public health consequences.”
A rival to Dakim BrainFitness is Brain HQ by Posit Science (brainhq.com). Michael Merzenich founded this company in 2003 to of fer brain-enhancing exercises, developed from his research, to normally aging older adults (“Game Your Brain: The New Benefits of Neuroplasticity,” Joao Medeiros, Wired UK , May 16, 2014; wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2014/05/features/game-your-brain). Whereas Dakim BrainFitness focuses on memory tasks along with language and math skills, Brain HQ aims to increase sensory processing speed and accuracy. One of the 40 exercises in Brain HQ, called Hawk Eye, is designed to sharpen visual perception. “A set of identical birds flashes briefly on-screen, except for one of a different colour that needs to be identified,” writes Medeiros. “Even harder is Mixed Signals, which requires subjects to watch a string of symbols, listen to a piece of information and react when they match.”
Brain HQ can be played on a home computer or on an iPad. Try some of the exercises for free on the site, or purchase a subscription at $14 per month or $96 per year. Posit Science has partnered with AARP to offer a discounted subscription rate to its members (brain.aarp.org).
What about that ubiquitously advertised brain game Lumosity (lumosity.com)? It was developed at San Francisco’s Lumos Labs; founded in 2005 by Michael Scanlon, Kunal Sarkar, and David Drescher; and launched in 2007. Not specifically designed for older adults, it is marketed as a way for everyone to improve his or her memory and cognitive speed.
Lumosity has signed up 50 million members, each with customized tests and tracking. Lumosity can be played on the web or as an app on iOS devices. A subscription to Lumosity runs about $15 per month on a month-to-month basis, about $7 per month if you commit to a year, $5 per month for a 2-year commitment, or about $300 for a “lifetime subscription.”
Brain Fitness: A Fit for the Library?
“There are many people that are working on extending our life span. We know that we pay a great burden for that,” said Gazzaley in his GPU Technology Conference keynote address. “We have neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s that are reaching epidemic proportions as we live longer and longer.”
Considering the aging, educated population of San Marino, and that one of the core values of librarianship according to the American Library Association is the support of “Education and Lifelong Learning” (ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/statementspols/corevalues), a program for brain fitness for seniors in the library absolutely matches our mission and the key information needs of our community.
“In your future is brain aerobics,” Merzenich emphatically states. “Get ready for it. It’s going to be a part of every life not too far in the future, just like physical exercise is a part of every well-organized life in the contemporary period.”
The public library may be just become the gym for your daily brain workout.