Fitness training for the brain

Whether brainteasers or sudoku, brain training has been around for decades. Berlin start-up NeuroNation offers it both online and via an app. The special feature of the online training program: it was developed in close collaboration with researchers from the Free University of Berlin. The company, founded in 2011 and still based in Brain City Berlin, is now considered the largest and most successful provider of online brain training in Europe. Managing Director Jakob Futorjanski is one of the founders of NeuroNation. In this interview, he tells the company's story, how training can keep our brains fit, and why it can be used effectively against diseases such as Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and Parkinson's.

Mr. Futorjanski, NeuroNation was launched in 2011. It is, to date, the only online cognitive training program developed with scientists. How did you come up with the idea?

I've always been fascinated with puzzles and memory games. Even as a child, my dad would play puzzle games with my sister and me. And that's still the case: whenever we get together, my dad has a puzzle waiting for us. However, the idea for NeuroNation first came to fruition when I met my co-founder Rojahn Ahmadi, who, as a tutor at the Technical University of Berlin working on artificial intelligence, had already developed some online games with his company One Extra Games.

 

And how did the cooperation with FU Berlin come about?

Dr. Michael Niedeggen, Professor of General and Industrial Psychology at the Free University, contacted Rojahn Ahmadi. He was looking for effective approaches to increase people's ability to think and be attentive. A basic problem was that the participants in his projects were difficult to motivate. The drop-out rate was high. The idea came quickly to combine cognitive online training with a playful approach and thus put the fun part of solving the tasks at the fore. It worked and the scientific foundations for NeuroNation were laid. In addition, it was shown that playful exercises effectively increased the working memory of the subjects, so much so that they wanted to share the training with their friends and families.

 

Why is that important?

Working memory is crucial for solving complex tasks. It helps us to speak, to learn, to recognize patterns, to think conclusively, and to retrieve information correctly. Meanwhile, research has shown that targeted training can improve the performance of our working memory even as we age.

 

What does that mean concretely?

Even 90-year-olds are forming new nerve cells in the brain; this is called adult neurogenesis of the hippocampus. This central hub of our brain is partly responsible for our thinking processes. The prerequisite for neurogenesis, however, is systematic training of our working memory. According to the so-called "buffer theory," the brain can build up additional cognitive resources through cognitive training, which are then retrieved when under stress to serve as a buffer against neurodegenerative diseases. Similar to muscles that build up additional fiber through athletic training. NeuroNation takes advantage of this ability. Using our computerized cognitive training modules, our users train their working memories. They promote their strengths and target their weaknesses.