Exercise Your Brain

The Times has a story today on the recent boom in "brain health" programs:

From "brain gyms" on the Internet to "brain-healthy" foods and activities at assisted living centers, the programs are aimed at baby boomers anxious about entering their golden years and at their parents trying to stave off memory loss or dementia.

The most popular of these programs (by far) is Nintendo's Brain Age. The game is a slickly marketed confection of shareware - you do everything from play Sudoku to read Dickens out loud - that pretends to measure the age of your brain. Of course, all they're really doing is measuring the speed of your reaction times. When I played the game, I went from having the brain of a senior citizen to having the brain of a twentysomething in about an hour. Either Nintendo has discovered the cognitive fountain of youth, or they're just making stuff up. My money is on the latter.

But Nintendo has still mastered the art of seeming scientific. The games comes coated with a veneer of neuroscience. Inspired by the work of Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, Brain Age supposedly uses cognitive exercises that maximize the amount of blood flow to your head. The unstated presumption is that more blood equals better brain fitness. Alas, the mind is different from your biceps. If you really want to increase the blood flow to your brain, just stand on your head for a few minutes a day.

That said, Brain Age certainly won't hurt you. Unlike a pill, it has no dangerous side-effects. And while it probably won't give you the brain of a teenager, playing Sudoku and reading classic literature are still much better for your neurons than watching television.

However, I still have one big problem with Brain Age: it crowds out the better, and more scientific alternatives. Although the Times barely mentions it, Posit Science ($495) is a brain fitness program with real scientific credentials. Developed by Michael Merzenich - a founder of the neural plasticity field - Posit Science has actually been proven to work in clinical trials:

Because the brain retains a lifelong capacity for plasticity and adaptive reorganization, dimensions of negative reorganization should be at least partially reversible through the use of an appropriately designed training program. We report here results from such a training program targeting age-related cognitive decline. Data from a randomized, controlled trial using standardized measures of neuropsychological function as outcomes are presented. Significant improvements in assessments directly related to the training tasks and significant generalization of improvements to nonrelated standardized neuropsychological measures of memory (effect size of 0.25) were documented in the group using the training program. Memory enhancement appeared to be sustained after a 3-month no-contact follow-up period. Matched active control and no-contact control groups showed no significant change in memory function after training or at the 3-month follow-up. This study demonstrates that intensive, plasticity-engaging training can result in an enhancement of cognitive function in normal mature adults.

I recently wrote a short article on brain fitness field for Seed, so I won't belabor the point here, but I do think that scientifically developed programs aimed at preventing cognitive decline (especially memory loss) have a bright future. Scientists have already shown that putting rats in enriched environments - the kind of cages that force them to exercise their mind - can prevent both the onset and severity of brain diseases. The list of diseases for which this effect has been verified is staggering. It reads like a who's who of neural nightmares: Alzheimers, Huntington's, Parkinson's, epilepsy, stroke, traumatic brain injury, Fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome.

When I was talking to Michael Merzenich, he neatly summarized the benefits of using brain fitness programs to postpone the aging process instead of drugs. "A pill is like a stick of dynamite," Merzenich said. "It just goes to the brain and creates all sorts of unintended side-effects. We really have no idea what's going on in there, even when it comes to drugs that have been around for decades. But if you use your own brain plasticity mechanisms, then you can target where, exactly, you want to change your brain." Merzenich later lamented the difficulty of trying to sell an expensive software program instead of an expensive pill: "It's much easier for most people to take a pill than spend hours training your brain. Plus, drugs just seem more medical, more scientific. But if I had a pill that could get the kind of results we've already gotten with Posit Science, then I'd be a very rich man."


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$495! I'll play bridge and chess before I shell out that kinda cash. Why is it so expensive anyways?

Hi Jonah,

1- Completely agree regarding Nintendo. Very fun game, unclear science behind (incidentally, most cognitive training scientists and practitioners we have talked to would insist on the need for training each "muscle" in isolation, or with domain-specific and targeted cross-training, vs. simply trying to generate widespread mental activity). Having said that, I am not aware of any long-term, double-blind study measuring the effects of "standing on your head for a few minutes a day", so we can not conclude that is not an option...

2- Wise words by Merzenich clarifying that this is about regular exercise, there is no magic pill. Scientific Learning produced great science on helping kids with dyslexia, Posit is starting to do the same in this new field. Now, to the best of my knowledge, Posit (and Scientific Learning before) have mostly focused on training auditory processing, which is important for seniors for whom audition may be a serious bottleneck but is not obvious to me why that would be the starting point for a healthy 40 or 50 year old person who wants to enhance short-term quality of life and/ or start building a cognitive reserve as prevention tool.

3- There is more to brain fitness than "anti-aging". Athletes train and go to the gym to perform better. There are a number of programs that are starting to provide great data, for a number of purposes, and some will be helpful for healthy aging. Some examples, by some of our partners:

Brain Activity Related to Working Memory and Distraction in Children and Adults

Computerized training of working memory in children with ADHD--a randomized, controlled trial

The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability

Impact of a workplace stress reduction program on blood pressure and emotional health in hypertensive employees.

My apologies for not being able to find now 2 papers online:

Gopher, D., Weil, M. and Baraket, T. (1994), Transfer of skill from a computer game trainer to flight, Human Factors 36, 1--19.

Review of General Psychology 2006, Vol. 10, No. 3, 229-240

You can read interviews with a number of these scientists (and others) at
Neuroscience Interview Series

Should you want to interview Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, for the overall picture of cognitive training and executive functions, or any of the scientists above, we could arrange it.

Happy holidays

I have been working in the brain fitness space since 2001 and we have come along way. There has been significant scientific studies over the last 5 years that illustrate how we can maintain and develop our cognitive skills through our lifespan. Our company has started to launch pilots that provide more efficacy to our software. I truly believe the next 5 years will see a lot of positive developments in this area.