08/18/2013 06:00 EDT | Updated 10/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Growth of brain fitness industry prompts creation of new online memory checkup

TORONTO - When Marcel Wieder's aunt was diagnosed with early onset dementia several years ago, the Toronto resident started to worry about his own brain health.

"It hit close to home," said the 52-year-old public affairs consultant.

"Generally, I think I have a pretty good memory. But I'm over 50 and there are lapses at times. I want to make sure that everything's firing on all cylinders."

In the past few years, Wieder has noticed his memory slipping a little. Friends' phone numbers, once readily at hand, have become tougher to recall.

"The question is: 'Is this within a normal range?'" Wieder said. "I don't know what the benchmarks are."

Cogniciti, a Toronto-based joint venture between Baycrest Health Sciences and the MaRS Discovery District, is hoping to answer that question with a new online memory assessment, slated to launch this fall.

The short, computer-based "brain checkup" promises to tell users whether their memory is normal for their age or whether a doctor's visit is in order. It also allows users to track their memory performance over time, so they can spot any unusual declines.

Cogniciti is seeking to ride the popularity of the "brain fitness" wave, a burgeoning new industry that one market research company estimates will be worth $4 billion to $8 billion globally by 2020.

The aging population and recent developments in neuroscience have made brain health a hot topic lately, especially as the "silver tsunami" of baby boomers heads toward retirement.

Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive of California-based SharpBrains, said the brain fitness industry — which is comprised mostly of computer-based games that promise to improve your mental abilities — is already worth over $1 billion.

Fernandez foresees a world where people will enlist the help of "brain fitness trainers" to sharpen their minds and athletes will be able to use tablets and smartphones to check whether they've suffered a concussion.

"The field is going to grow to be as mainstream as physical fitness is now," Fernandez said.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada estimated that a staggering 1.4 million Canadians will have Alzheimer's disease and other dementias by 2031.

"People are more health aware and keen to get the best information today, and of course the baby boomers are right at the front of that," said Dr. Larry Chambers, a scientific adviser to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

"We have more people like that now than we've ever had in society."

However, Fernandez notes there's a gap in the brain fitness industry. While dozens of training regimens promise to improve memory and other cognitive functions, there's a lack of clinically tested assessment tools.

That's the hole that Cogniciti is hoping to fill.

Cogniciti president Michael Meagher said the brain check-up his team is developing could help alleviate health-care costs by diverting healthy people away, while allowing those with Alzheimer's or dementia to identify the symptoms sooner.

"What we're producing is going to be just as useful as the home thermometer in terms of getting people to the doctor when they need it and reassuring them to stay home when they don't," Meagher said.

Of course, brain fitness isn't only for baby boomers and the elderly. David Cheslea, a 24-year-old student in Windsor, Ont., turned to a brain training regimen called Lumosity after a heart attack damaged his short-term memory, peripheral vision and equilibrium.

"I'd put something down and forget where I left it," said Cheslea. "I was never good at remembering names, but after that I was brutal."

But Cheslea, who had been doing a master's degree in Ireland before his injury, was determined to go back to school.

After three months of playing Lumosity's Internet-based games nearly every day, he said his memory and his peripheral vision have gotten noticeably better.

"I do see the improvements, and my family sees the improvements... but progress is a slow process, as they say."

Some of the major hurdles Cogniciti could face include being able to market the product in a way that makes it seem credible and winning the approval of the medical community, said Fernandez.

"Will (doctors) understand the value of this? Will they tell patients these things don't work?" Fernandez asked.

Chambers said it's important for consumers to be cautious when using memory assessment tools and brain training games, because the quality of the tools can vary widely.

"Just like any health issue, you've got to do some critical appraisal," Chambers said.

"If you're going to go to surgery, you never just take the opinion of one surgeon. You get two opinions before someone cuts you up. Similarly, if you're going to look at any algorithm for brain health, you'd want to look at two or three, and also look at a couple of critiques. You have to be a smart consumer."