By Rachel Roubein, USA TODAY
Montreal-based boxer Sylvera "Sly" Louis suffered a knockout late last year that could have ended his fighting career.
But three months later he returned to the ring, a feat he credits to hard workouts -- on brain-training software.
Louis spent countless hours on Lumosity, a brain-training program from Lumos Labs that includes more than 35 games and exercises aimed at increasing alertness, sharpening memory skills, improving concentration and thinking faster.
The boxer says he improved his reaction times. "Every little moment matters," Louis says.
Louis is part of a new club that takes exercise for the brain every bit as seriously as exercise for the body. It's a growing movement that's swept up 15 million users of Lumosity. Smaller rivals such as Posit Science and MindSparke are also vying in this arena.
San Francisco-based Lumos Labs' Lumosity attracted $32.5 million in a third round of venture-capital funding in June.
Lumosity works on the Internet but also has an iPhone app. The start-up plans to use the funding to jump onto apps for Android and Apple's iPad as well as to build up its current Web-based brain workouts.
"Your brain, in some ways, is like a muscle," says Tim Chang, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners, which invested in Lumos Labs. "It needs to be kept in shape."
That was the logic of Lumosity co-founders Michael Scanlon, David Drescher and Kunal Sarkar. In 2005, the company was started to fill a void in brain-exercising software.
"People end up using it for very different reasons, in jobs or things that they care about," says Scanlon, chief scientific officer of Lumos Labs.
Brain-training software is in its early phases. But industry analysts believe it's a lucrative market that taps into people's obsession with health.
Research firm IDC says brain-training games such as Lumosity fall within a sector for education apps, which represent a $150 million market worldwide in Apple's App Store. IDC forecasts the fast-growing group will expand to a more than $1.5 billion market in 2015.
"A lot of the physical-fitness market will carry over into the mind-fitness field because the two are linked," IDC analyst Scott Ellison says.
Navneet Setlur, a medical student at International American University in St. Lucia, uses Lumosity to expand his memory capacity and now beats the apps' games on a daily basis.
"I've been on Lumosity a couple hours a day ever since last June," Setlur says. "I have a lifetime membership, so it's going to be there forever."
And that's the product's hook: It doesn't feel like mindless, monotonous work. It's a game, and it's captivating, Chang says. "The part that's very compelling is the more you play, the more you learn about yourself," he says. "It's even more compelling in some ways than the gym."
Lumos Labs knows that learning can be more attractive when a game's involved. That's why its Lumosity software uses so-called gamification tactics in keeping its users interested.
Gamification is the notion of building gamelike elements into non-gaming applications, such as in brain-training software. In theory, it makes learning a more playful, enticing experience.
Silicon Valley is somewhat obsessed with the notion that gamification can improve business for a broad range of websites.
While researchers have not made an official statement endorsing Lumosity's effectiveness, Stanford researcher Shelli Kesler says the app shows promise.
She, with three other researchers, conducted a six-week study this year to test the app's ability to improve the mathematical skills of 16 girls with Turner syndrome, a disease known for its high risk for math disabilities.
Each played games on Lumosity that focused on practicing number sense, problem solving and calculations five days a week, 20 minutes a day. After six weeks, the majority of the girls' math scores had reached those of their peers.
"They made a switch so that their brain functions more similarly to a typically developing child," Kesler says.
Prior to the study, all girls were given lessons on different strategies to help conquer their mathematical struggles. Because there was no control group, the results could be skewed, Kesler says.
"Lumosity comes in by allowing a nice way of having kids and adults practice certain skills that they're weak at, but it doesn't necessarily give them the strategy," Kesler says. "You have to have a strategy sometimes, too."
Although more research is needed to draw an actual conclusion, Kesler says Lumosity appears to dominate the digital brain fitness marketplace. "I think Lumosity is the best one out there so far, because it has a wide range of curriculum," she says.
However, other programs do exist, many of which are targeted to a specific audience:
MindSparke is another Web-based brain-fitness program that works to increase memory and the ability to multitask. Play the game 30 minutes a day for about a month, and your memory and attention span will jump more than 40%, according to the MindSparke website. Then there is Cogmed Working Memory Training. It offers a five-week training program for people with attention deficit disorder or other learning disabilities, victims of brain injuries or senior citizens. The program involves 25 computerized training sessions that take 30-45 minutes to complete.
Posit Science is a CD-based computer game that focuses on improving the brain speed and memory of aging people.
"It's a critical thing to speed up the brain so that it operates like you're young again," says Mike Merzenich, Posit Science's chief scientific officer.
Personalized mind workouts and brain speed, in particular, certainly helped Louis. Since the boxer's comeback, he boosted his ranking to the top 200 from his previous ranking of No. 625 in the world.
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