February 8, 2009
Palo Alto Online
Sue Dremann

It’s frustrating being out-smarted by a chimpanzee, but that’s what happens every day to hundreds of people playing the “Chimp game” at the Lumosity brain-fitness website.

The memory game flashes numbers on a screen for a split second, then the player must tag the spot where each number was – in ascending order.

Ayumu, a 7-year-old chimpanzee, can do it flawlessly. But when players pit themselves against the chimp, they often can’t get past one or two numbers, prompting Ayumu’s gleeful photograph to pop up, jeering.

Despite the humiliation involved, computer games that test one’s wits have increased in popularity in recent years, especially among seniors worried about the onset of dementia, experts say.

“People are desperate. Everybody over 70 knows someone with Alzheimer’s. Five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and that will rise to 15 million by the middle of the century,” said Bill Fisher, chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada.

In the consumer market, Baby Boomers are buying into brain-fitness games – including those by Lumosity, PositScience (a company popularized by KQED fundraisers) and FitBrains – for themselves or their parents. Senior retirement communities are purchasing the software for residents. Some health-insurance companies are giving the software to people at risk for dementia, under physician supervision, according to Alvaro Fernandez, founder of SharpBrains, a San Francisco market-research company.

Between 2005 and 2007, the market for brain-fitness software more than doubled in the United States, from $100 million to $225 million, Fernandez said.

There is research that justifies the belief that games can aid the brain’s health, according to Dr. Walter Bortz II, a Stanford University School of Medicine associate professor and expert on longevity and robust aging. Studies show that stimulating the brain by learning new tasks increases blood factors in the brain that act like steroids, making it possible for the brain to grow even in old age.

Called “brain plasticity,” such growth is the foundation of brain-fitness software research.

Dr. Marian C. Diamond at University of California at Berkeley found that rats that were given toys, social interaction and exercise wheels blazed their way through mazes, whereas deprived rats only made their way through by default, Bortz said. And the brains of the privileged rats were bigger, sprouting neural pathways “like a shrub in springtime,” said Bortz, who has written about the brain for 30 years.

PositScience’s director of research and development, Dr. Joe Hardy, said his company’s technologies are founded in research done in the 1980s by co-founder Dr. Michael Merzenich, who discovered that the adult brain could change and improve.

“For many years, neuroscientists believed that developmental changes didn’t take place after the early 20s. But the brain is a learning machine, and the right kinds of exercises can stimulate growth,” he said.

The games were developed with input from researchers at Stanford University, University of California at San Francisco, the Mayo Clinic, Yale University and others and are backed by controlled clinical trials, he said.

Game developers point to ongoing research substantiating the benefits of exercising one’s brain.

People who use the software programs make improvements in the speed and accuracy of their cognitive abilities, said Elizabeth Race, a graduate student in the Stanford University neurosciences program and scientific advisor to Lumos Labs, the San Francisco creator of Lumosity.

Some work is beginning with patients who have mild cognitive impairment that is pre-Alzheimer’s to see if early intervention can improve or slow their condition, she added.

UCLA scientists recently found that searching the Internet triggers areas in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning in middle-aged and older adults, according to neuroscientist Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center and principal author of “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching,” which appeared in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

The 24 subjects were divided into two groups of similar age, sex and educational background and all were tested while searching the Web. Only their level of technological experience differed.

Members of the group who regularly search the Internet had more than twice the brain activity than those who were not habitual online surfers, as determined by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests, Small said.

The brains of tech-savvy group members also showed significantly more activity in areas of the brain that control language, reading, memory and vision when participants read books.

Their brains also showed stimulation in areas that the non-Internet users did not: decision-making and complex reasoning. And those with Web experience registered a two-fold increase in brain activity compared to those with little Internet experience, Small said.

The effects of cognitive training can also last for years, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2006. “Reasoning” training resulted in less mental decline in daily-living activities that would have resulted in loss of independent living, such as personal hygiene, housekeeping and driving skills. The benefits had lasted for at least five years, according to the report.

The National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board recently reported that seniors who used cognitive visual training were 51 percent less likely to cause an accident, Hardy said.

“As you get older the focus of attention gets tunneled and you focus on the center of vision. Simultaneously, the perception of peripheral vision is reduced, so you miss cars coming up alongside you,” Hardy said.

InSight, a PositScience product that trains the visual field, helps older drivers by broadening their visual field and adds driving challenges, such as more clutter and distracting elements, he said.

Allstate Insurance Company began a pilot program last October to test if playing InSight would improve safety among drivers 50 years old and older. If the study shows that the games can improve driving, the insurance company plans to offer discounts to mature drivers who pass the online tests. The Pennsylvania pilot would be expanded to other states next year, he said.

“The PositScience software has been shown in more than a dozen National Institutes of Health-funded studies to improve visual-processing skills known to be important for safe driving. The technology has been shown to reduce dangerous driving maneuvers by up to 40 percent and improve stopping distance by an average of 22 feet when traveling at 55 miles per hour. … Allstate believes this innovative program has the potential to improve what could be the most important piece of auto safety equipment – the mind of the driver,” the company said in a press release.

But not everyone is convinced of the efficacy of brain-fitness software.

The science is still thin, according to Fisher of the Alzheimer’s Association, and for the time being, he isn’t investing in brain-fitness technology.

Although the software tools won’t hurt, more importantly, lifestyle, exercise, and social interaction and “engagement” have proven key to brain health in the last eight years of studies, he said.

Persons with higher academic learning or who continue to learn throughout life have a later and lesser onset of Alzheimer’s, he said, citing a well-publicized nun study that tracked nuns from the time they joined the order at age 18.

“One thing stood out: At 18 when they wrote their (admission) essay, those who had a sentence structure that was more complex at 18 had later onset of the disease,” he said.

And he stressed the importance of cardiovascular fitness. “What is good for the heart is good for the brain,” he said.

“Is Google making us stupid?” author Nicholas Carr asked in an article of the same name in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic, an online magazine. He noticed a shortening of attention span due to habitual Internet use.

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. … Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.

“My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski,” he wrote.

And that anecdote seems to have some scientific bearing, he pointed out.

A recently published five-year study of online research habits suggests that people using online sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity.” Subjects read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would go to another site, and it wasn’t clear if they ever went back to read the entire article again, even after downloading it, according to scholars at University College London.

Bortz, author of “Dare to Be Fit” and “Dare to Be 100,” warned that cognitive intellectual exercise doesn’t address the whole self, and sensory activities, such as listening to a symphony, may also prove important to memory.

And geriatric scientists at Stanford place a high value on adaptability, he said.

“Life is always full of twists and turns. … To be 100, you have to be plastic,” he said.