Those taking part in a conference of retired people in Ramat Gan this week could conjure up images of weights, body suits and sweat when the salespeople of the Israeli start-up Cognifit start talking about the workout room they have developed. But fitness is also a mind thing.

Like the abilities of those attending the conference to grasp images and improve their performance in a variety of areas, fitness is not exclusively associated with body building and physical exercise. The muscle needing its own workout and maintenance is the most important organ of all - the brain. Cognifit has developed software for this purpose and will this week unveil the Hebrew version of a program that acts like a sophisticated set of weights but with the aim of improving cognitive performance.

For the CEO of Cognifit, psychologist Professor Shlomo Breznitz, the introduction of "Mind Fit55" brings to fruition a vision he has had for over 20 years, in which he sees "mature adults training on computers to maintain their cognitive skills." Breznitz relates that the event that engendered his personal vision was the development of brain imaging, in which radioactive material is introduced into a patient's brain, which then spreads with the blood flow, showing researchers where activity is taking place.

Brain imaging enabled scientists to see, for the first time, how different parts of the brain react to different types of stimuli, and Breznitz, who saw how the radioactive fluid passes from one part of the brain to the other in response to certain questions, realized that the method makes it possible to understand what the brain needs, and give it what it needs in the form of focused stimuli that will enhance the individual's abilities.

"Studies show that what distinguishes between people whose cognitive ability has deteriorated and those in whom it has not is the degree that they activate their brains," says Breznitz. "Among more educated people, who by the nature of things will find themselves working in professions in which they use their cognitive abilities more than uneducated persons, the risk of developing Alzheimer's is one-third that of the general population. People who engage in hobbies are also in a better situation, in terms of their cognitive abilities, than people who sit down in front of their TV all day long."

Pulling upward

Cognitive skills are the thought processes we use to function in the world. Cognition may be described as a pyramid at the base of which are attention and perception - being attentive is the ability to focus on certain stimuli and deciding whether to continue relating to them or to disregard them, and perception is the ability to decipher them and to understand the stimuli that are absorbed by the senses.

Without attention and perception, explains Breznitz, there is no memory - and without memory, there is no learning. Atop the pyramid of cognition, above memory and learning, are cognitive skills such as problem solving and abstract thought.

Breznitz says that although his vision was outlined 20 years ago, it was not possible to apply the idea and translate it into a product. Only five years ago, when personal computers became increasingly more accessible, and when statistics showed that the elderly population was in fact one of the age groups leading society in the rate of Internet connectivity, did Breznitz decide to realize the dream, and he founded Cognifit.

Over the past few years, the company has developed several products designed to enhance driving safety among young people and subsequently among adults, as well, but, Breznitz says, "the real objective of the company is what is happening now."

Using MindFit55, which will be sold to private consumers for NIS 250, is less oppressive than it might sounds and may even prove enjoyable. Even before they start working, users inform the program of their age, whether they hear well, and if their eyesight, including the ability to distinguish colors, is in good order. Afterward, following some very detailed explanations that are intended to calm the nerves of even the worst technophobes, the exercises begin.

The user has to click on certain numbers according to sequence, differentiate between a filled circle and a hollow circle, and exercise all the cognitive skills by means of assorted little games, each with a different significance. Over time, more exercises are added that exercise other skills.

However, what distinguishes MindFit55 from other programs is not the detailed explanations or the eye-catching graphics, but the artificial intelligence "agent" that operates in the background of the program's activity. It adapts the program's performance to the user's ability.

"The idea is not only that the software adjusts its level to the level of the user, but that it also tells him things he did not know about himself, for instance that his memory is better when he hears something than when he sees the same things, or that he has skills that are more powerful in the afternoon hours than in the morning hours," says Breznitz.

What's more the intelligent agent makes sure that the user working with MindFit55 will never suffer frustration. "The software will always give you an exercise that you can do, and will little by little pull you upwards. We don't want to compare people to other people, but rather to compare people with themselves," says Breznitz.

Back to the crossword

Adi Zur, a social worker who studied the population of elderly people suffering from dementia for her Masters thesis, says that until now there were no computer programs available to train cognitive skills in elderly people.

Zur says that one can only profit from use of software like MindFit55, but emphasizes that the software cannot replace traditional activities like reading, social interaction, playing cognitive games and cards, or solving crosswords.

Zur is concerned that elderly who are not accustomed to working with computers might be frustrated by their inability to operate the program, despite its simplicity. "It is possible to teach older people how to use software, but you have to remember that learning at an older age is very slow," says Zur.

"If a young person needs a single lesson, a person of 80 might need eight or ten lessons, and this takes a lot of energy. Lack of success could potentially frighten and frustrate older people, who might tell themselves, `See - more proof that there's something wrong with my head.'"

Zur is also concerned by the social implications of using the software. "This is a product intended for people with money, who will say that it is part of doing everything for themselves or for their parents. This means that it will create a correlation between education level, which usually translates into a certain income level, and the preservation of high cognitive skills."