Cognitive training can improve the quality of everyday life14 de novembro de 2023
By Roseli Andrion | FAPESP Innovative R&D – Who has never had memory failures, lacked focus or found it hard to control their impulses while considering important decisions? These and other cognitive processes are studied by neuroscientists and can be treated by brain stimulation, according to Sensorial Sports, a neuroscience startup based in Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo state.
The firm received funding from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE) and developed a solution using virtual reality (VR) goggles for cognitive training via mini-games. They then leveraged the knowledge acquired in the initial stage to create smartphone and tablet apps.
According to Caio Moreira, who has a PhD in behavior and cognition and is the firm’s Chief Science and Technology Officer, the goal now is to develop solutions to improve the quality of people’s lives. “We want to help improve people’s health and cognitive performance, all of which will result in improvements to the quality of their lives,” he said.
One of the systems created by the firm uses VR to measure reaction time, use of peripheral vision, attention, impulsivity control and decision-making agility in response to different visual stimuli.
“The results give us an idea of the subject’s cognitive profile, which we use to define what can be stimulated to improve their performance,” Moreira said.
The mobile apps do not involve the immersion made possible by VR, he added, but combine cognitive stimulation with motion analysis. “When you move, your heartbeat speeds up and various other parts of your organism come into play, promoting brain plasticity. We’ve developed an app called Sensorial Moove that stimulates brain plasticity on the basis of motion and uses targeted stimulation to help the user develop cognitive skills,” he said.
In PIPE Phase 1, the firm’s researchers used the cognitive training system to assess a group of under-17 soccer players at Palmeiras, a leading São Paulo club, and under-15 and under-19 female volleyball players belonging to the Barueri Sports Club in metropolitan São Paulo. The five-week study involved two training sessions per week and produced clear evidence of cognitive improvements that were transferred to practice, according to Moreira.
In the Palmeiras case, for example, the players who took part in the training sessions performed more offensive actions in matches. “In the Barueri case, the volleyball players who displayed the most improvements in matches were the ones whose speed of response improved most during the training sessions,” he said. The firm is now reviewing its cognitive training protocols, but its research shows that use of the technology for 30-50 minutes per week yields positive results.
The startup’s technology was recently used to upgrade the performance of Manchester City’s goalkeeper Ederson, who has played for Brazil in the same position. It improved his concentration, attention, reaction speed and peripheral vision. He wants to be more agile and help decide matches by rushing forward to defend the goal against corner kicks, catching and holding shots, and using his feet while under pressure. The need arose because Ederson plays in teams that prefer highly offensive soccer and spends long periods during matches without touching the ball. Hence the need for better concentration, impulsivity control and decision-making during matches. These skills can be decisive in a counterattack. He receives two training sessions with VR goggles per week on average.
Some of the athlete’s activities combine mental and physical stimulation. During strength series, for example, he frequently does cognitive exercises to improve decision speed. The aim is to train the brain to keep working efficiently after a burst of strenuous effort, rather than taking the pause as an opportunity to disconnect.
In June 2023, Manchester City won the UEFA Champions League, considered the most prestigious club competition in European soccer. Ederson made two superb saves in the dying minutes of the final and helped secure a victory over Inter Milan. In September, he was shortlisted for FIFA’s Best Goalkeeper award.
Other areas of activity
Although it began conducting research in sports, Sensorial now offers solutions for industry, healthcare and other corporate activities. “We’re currently developing a pilot project for over-fifties who go to fitness centers, investigating whether the use of cognitive exercises during physical training influences the risk of falls, which are frequent in this age group. The initial data we’ve collected is highly promising,” Moreira said.
The firm is also working with a petrochemical company and a meatpacking company to reduce the number of accidents caused by human error. “At the meatpacker, for example, this involves professionals who handle highly explosive substances or cutting machines. The petrochemical company wants to monitor ore extraction factors to avert risks,” Moreira said.
The process first took place at the petrochemical plant in late 2020, and the team returned there after 18 months in 2022. “When we assessed the individuals who had participated on the first occasion, we found that the gains obtained then had been maintained,” he said.
Cognitive improvements obtained via specific training tend to be lost after about three months, according to the literature, he added, although in some cases they persist for up to five years. “That may mean the brain has been reconfigured and continues to be so on an everyday basis thanks to the individual’s other activities,” he said.
The firm’s objective is to create solutions that can improve the lives of the largest possible number of people. “Most people have a smartphone, which they use mainly in activities that are harmful to the brain. We’re happy to be able to develop products that can do good, especially to their health,” Moreira said.
The prevalence of more and more simultaneous stimuli makes paying attention to a given task or activity increasingly hard, he continued. The firm therefore plans to use cognitive stimulation in conjunction with motion to help children and adolescents improve their skills. Cognition tests produce concrete measurements that enable participants to know themselves better. “If I achieve a particular performance in an activity and then my performance begins to deteriorate, various processes may be involved, as a result of modifications in brain functions,” he said. “We want to be in many people’s hands to promote health and well-being.”