How to boost your brain power

A wave of training apps promise to improve on speed, focus, memory and sleep patterns. Rebecca Newman signs up for neurobics. Illustration by Miguel Porlan

Image: Getty Images

The ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body has been flourishing since the Roman poet Juvenal. Most of us are clear how to strive for bodily improvement, but optimising the brain? While we might have a stab at cryptic crosswords or taking up tango, it’s hard to know what works best.

A wave of “neurobic” brain-training apps, such as Lumosity, seemed to have exciting potential. Neuroscientists, however, challenged their efficacy. Now, the projected rise in dementia – globally 152 million people are expected to live with Alzheimer’s by 2050 – is bringing fresh attention to brain function. A blossoming field of research is looking into boosting reaction speed, memory and focus in healthy brains. “Neurohacking” innovations such as electrical stimulation are already being used by elite athletes, including the US Olympic Ski Team. And sedentary executives are also converting – one fund manager compared the idea of firing up more neural pathways in his brain as analogous to improving data speed for his high-frequency trading.

Two London spaces are leading the charge for enhancing cognitive prowess. Just off Harley Street, Club 51 is a sleek fitness space. But its array of kettlebells, My Mountain treadmill and Power Tower climbing machine are only part of the picture. Founder Jon Denoris thinks of his club less in terms of a gym and more in terms of a biohacking lab. “We treat our clients like athletes: we want to optimise their performance in the gym, in business and in life.”

Denoris has form. A masters-level exercise scientist and coach who has trained GB athletes and champion endurance racers, he increasingly works these days with high-flying lawyers, City bankers and international entrepreneurs willing to pay from £5,400 for a 12-week programme to get a competitive edge. “If someone comes to me wanting to enhance their executive function, we design a lifestyle plan embracing sleep hygiene, nutritional strategies and specific exercise techniques to improve brain as well as body function.”

Denoris uses neurotech fresh from Silicon Valley. One such gizmo is a pair of liquid-crystal glasses whose lenses flicker between transparent and opaque. Worn during catching drills, they promote anticipatory decision making. “You have to work out where the ball will travel,” he explains, “knowing that you may not be able to see it at the moment you come to make the catch. We also use visual-acuity training, in which differently coloured lights are projected round the walls. You might need to move and touch only the red ones. This speeds up brain processing.”

There’s more. To intensify the brain workout, beforehand you might do a 20-minute warm-up session wearing a Halo Sport neuropriming headset – a device that looks like a pair of headphones, but which is lined with small spikes that deliver transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the head/brain. These electrical pulses are said to encourage a state of neuroplasticity or “hyperlearning”, in which neurones connect more readily than normal, thus increasing the speed with which you can master new drills – or skills. One peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled study published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology found that after using the headset, the mean power output in sprint cycling trials was 17 per cent higher in a group using Halo than the control group. Such results have triggered suggestions that one day tDCS could be so effective as to be called “neurodoping”. Likewise, Mario Marzo, pianist with the Madrid Royal Conservatory, reported that, with the assistance of Halo Sport, it took him three days to learn what would usually take him a week.

Back at Club 51, a client’s session might finish with an infrared sauna, in which heat penetrates more effectively than a traditional sauna, improving circulation and detoxification – as well as stimulating neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells. To deepen the effects, Denoris might twin this with a shake containing specific nootropic herbs, such as rhodiola, which promote cognitive function by encouraging neurogenesis (brain cell production) and the synthesis of ATP, a key energy source for both body and brain.

Ian Chambers, CEO of Mind Candy, the children’s tech company behind Moshi Monsters and sleep app Moshi Twilight, was so impressed by the improvements he experienced that he asked Denoris to train the rest of his team. “I see a difference in them, and in me – in my energy, decision making and clarity of thought.”

Around the corner from Club 51, health clinic Viavi also creates bespoke brain workouts. It was founded by physician Dr Sabine Donnai, formerly medical director of not-for-profit healthcare provider Nuffield Health and a former regional clinical director at Bupa, who was dismayed at how specialised medicine was becoming. “A cardiologist will be brilliant at treating the heart. But only the heart. Too often the totality is missed: to try to assess one part of the body in isolation makes no sense.”

Before treating a client, Viavi creates the fullest possible picture of their health – including the brain. “Generally, if you go for an ‘MOT’, they look from the neck down,” she explains, throwing up her hands in horror. “The brain is often ignored. But it is in charge of regulating everything else.”

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For those hedgefund owners, premiership players and royalty who pay £15,000 a year for Viavi to sharpen their cerebral assets, a brain workout begins with an initial round of baseline assessments (from vitamin and mineral levels in the blood to a profile of gut bacteria). Then there’s a second, more detailed round of investigation, including cognitive screen tests designed by Cambridge Brain Sciences (such as spotting the odd one out in patterns) to evaluate memory, concentration, reaction speed and executive function. Finally, brain “mapping” – a more sci-fi approach – sees electrodes placed on the scalp, while an EEG machine measures the amplitude of brainwaves.

“In a well-functioning brain, you want to see a balance between the different types of wave in each part of the brain,” says Donnai. We all have our own individual patterns, which continuously change, but an extremely high level of delta waves (associated with deep sleep) in one area of the cortex, matched with an extremely low level elsewhere, might trigger concern – particularly if a patient was complaining of sluggish thoughts or brain fog. Certain data from the brain map and the cognitive tests, combined with other risk factors such as your genetic predisposition and key markers of inflammation in the blood, could trigger a dementia risk alert up to 10 years before you display any symptoms. Viavi can design a targeted programme of interventions that might include anything from sleep hygiene to optimising the gut biome (eg, by eating more fermented food), cardiovascular fitness or stress management to lower this risk.

Numerous things might affect a person’s pattern of brainwaves, from physical or emotional trauma to substance abuse. Data from the assessments is crunched by Viavi’s medical team – the in-house physicians work with a roster of specialists, including clinical nutritionists, consultant neurologists and endocrinologists – to design a correction strategy, anything from resolving deficiencies in omega-3 to improving levels of neurohormones such as serotonin with sleep and supplements.

Saeed Mubarak Al-Hajeri, chairman and director of Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, tells me: “I was interested by the fact that Viavi puts together an analysis of everything from DNA to heart rate to your neural system and how fast you complete an IQ test. I am data driven. It motivates me to see my results, and then to see them improve. Also, I experience the difference in my mind, in my thinking and memory, on a day-to-day basis.”

This year, Viavi has become one of the first clinics in the world to use a new standard in brain imaging: a near-infrared spectroscopy machine. Roughly put, the near-infrared light is absorbed by haemoglobin, which reveals information about blood flow and oxygenation – and so any issues with how efficiently the blood is supplying the brain with nutrients.

Another corrective approach is neurofeedback. Similar to the brain map, electrodes are placed on the scalp and relay your brain activity to a computer. A clinician will set a desired brainwave threshold for, say, calm, and direct a client to relax until they achieve it. When their brainwaves adjust to the target, the computer emits a rewarding sound. “The brain learns very quickly. It’s a bit like training a dog,” says Donnai. In 2010, Chelsea Football Club was an early adopter of Viavi’s neurofeedback to improve the players’ ability to focus under pressure. One can gauge its success by the fact that the club now has an in-house neurofeedback team.

Alongside neurofeedback and tDCS, there’s also photobiomodulation, a process based on Nasa research that uses near-infrared in a different way: shining it through a light helmet to stimulate target brainwaves. Dr Bruno Ribeiro, professor at the University of Murcia and head of cognitive development and brain stimulation at SHA Wellness Clinic in Spain, uses the three methods in concert. “After a week, we can see up to an eight to 14 per cent improvement in cognitive evaluations,” he says.

Exactly what can be measured with brain mapping, and exactly what intervention can be done using different kinds of neurofeedback, is contentious. Dr Martijn Arns, founding director of Research Institute Brainclinics, challenges the idea of seeking balance in the pattern of brainwaves, and says that while “EEG has the potential to help enhance cognitive function in healthy people, the evidence needs to be more well defined”. Neuroscientist Dr Daniel Glaser adds, “These treatments may make a difference, but the evidence is messy: is it the intervention that is creating an improvement, or a placebo effect?”

I put such doubts to Dr Eddy J Davelaar, reader in cognitive science at Birkbeck. He points to hundreds of studies put together by university-based researchers, generally neuroscientists, that validate the use of EEG – including a seminal paper written by researchers at the University of Montreal in 2013, which demonstrates that neurofeedback training has a measurable outcome, actually changing the structure of the brain. “Clinicians can have the expertise to look at brain activity [ie, to brain map], to see previous trauma to the brain with an EEG, and to treat it. In collaboration with the fullest health assessment, neurofeedback is a paradigm that can be very beneficial.”

What is sure is that it is no longer just Californian types who are having a whirl at brain boosting. A global assortment of business people, sports players and health-conscious wealthy individuals also believe it is worth the investment. “People who come to us are results-based and time-sensitive,” says Vivai’s Donnai. “We have a 90 per cent retention rate because it works.” 

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This story was originally posted on 29 January 2020.

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