The Times recently had an article on the booming business of brain fitness:
Decaying brains, or the fear thereof, have inspired a mini-industry of brain health products — not just supplements like coenzyme Q10, ginseng and bacopa, but computer-based fitter-brain products as well.
Nintendo’s $19.99 Brain Age 2, a popular video game of simple math and memory exercises, is one. Posit Science’s $395 computer-based “cognitive behavioral training” exercises are another. MindFit, a $149 software-based program, combines cognitive assessment of more than a dozen different skills with a personalized training regimen based on that assessment. And for about $10 a month, worried boomers can subscribe to Web sites like Lumosity.com and Happy-Neuron.com, which offer a variety of cognitive training exercises.
Alvaro Fernandez, whose brain fitness and consulting company, SharpBrains, has a Web site focused on brain fitness research. He estimates that in 2007 the market in the United States for so-called neurosoftware was $225 million.
It’s a fine article, but I still wish there was mention of the fact that so many of these brain fitness products are utter nonsense. Last year, I wrote a short article for Seed on these over-hyped products:
It’s a trend that began in Japan. In the summer of 2005, Nintendo introduced Japanese consumers to its Brain Age software for its handheld gaming system. Since then, it has sold more than four million copies worldwide. The conceit of the game is simple, if woefully unscientific: After assessing your initial “brain age” with a brief series of mental tasks, the program runs you through a gauntlet of basic exercises like reading comprehension and sudoku before measuring you again. I was happy to see that my improvement was nothing short of miraculous: After less than an hour with Nintendo’s Brain Age, my own brain age had decreased by 20 years, from 65 to 45. Of course, when the science is pretend, great results are easy to come by.
Although Nintendo employs Ryuta Kawashima, a famous Japanese neuroscientist, to sell Brain Age, the company carefully avoids making any specific scientific claims. “We’re in the entertainment business,” says Perrin Kaplan, head of marketing for Nintendo’s U.S. operations. But the company coats Brain Age in a veneer of neuroscience. Potential customers find colorful fMRI images and admonishments to “get the most out of your prefrontal cortex” on the game’s promotional Web site. This entertainment is masquerading as neurology.
That said, there are some programs that come with real empirical proof. (Update: see some important qualifications in the comments.) PositScience, developed by UCSF neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, is damn expensive ($395!) and rather boring to play, but it has undergone some real testing:
In a recent PNAS paper, Merzenich’s lab announced that PositScience was able to reverse “age-related cognitive decline” in a randomized and controlled study of 182 subjects. Of those trained with PositScience, 93 percent showed significant cognitive improvement. “We’ve demonstrated that you can take the brain of a 75-year-old,” Merzenich says, “and make it function like the brain of a 35- or 40-year-old. It takes training, and some hard work, but it’s possible.” Preliminary results of a second trial study suggest that PositScience can even help stave off memory loss in the early stages of Alzheimer’s patients. After just four weeks, senile patients showed significant cognitive improvement. The control group, on the other hand, continued to decline.
Merzenich has big plans for PositScience. He wants to launch programs that target the visual cortex, working memory, and executive control. With those goals in mind, he has partnered with the Mayo Clinic to conduct an expansive trial study. Moreover, Merzenich has begun studying the positive effects of PositScience on schizophrenic patients. The results so far have been “extremely encouraging”: “If we got these same improvements with a pill,” Merzenich says, “we’d be counting the money already. We’d have billions in sales. But this isn’t a pill–it’s much better than that.”