March 25, 2009
Scientific American
Kaspar Mossman

Michael Merzenich, neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, is ruthless as he describes how my 37-year-old brain is going to turn to mush over the years to come.

“You’re going to slowly decline in operating speed,” he says. “Your brain will become noisier and noisier in its processing.” And I will have more and more trouble figuring out exactly what it was I just heard or saw. The villain: age-related cognitive decline, which Merzenich says is a combination of physical changes and something called negative brain plasticity-the cerebral equivalent of what has happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps.

A way to combat negative brain plasticity is to train regularly using any of an increasingly wide range of software products designed expressly for the purpose, says Merzenich, who founded Posit Science, which makes one such package.

Cognitive training is growing in popularity as baby boomers age. From 2005 to 2007 the U.S. brain fitness business increased from $100 million to $225 million, according to a report by SharpBrains, a market research company specializing in cognitive health. The growth was driven to a large extent by the success of Nintendo’s Brain Age [see my review of it and two other brain-training games in “Circuit Training”; Scientific American Mind, June/July 2006]. Research does confirm that regular brain exercise is beneficial to elderly people. ACTIVE, a nationwide clinical trial of 2,802 seniors that began in 1998, found that training in specific areas such as “processing speed” ­resulted in improvements that persisted at least five years.

I recently tried out eight of the latest brain fitness programs, training with each for a week. The programs ranged widely in focus, quality and how fun they were to use. “Like physical exercise equipment, a brain exercise program doesn’t do you any good if you don’t use it,” says Andrew J. Carle, director of the Program in Assisted Living/Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University. And people tend not to use boring equipment. “I remember when NordicTrack was the biggest thing out there. Everyone ran out and bought one, and 90 percent of them ended up as a clothes rack in the back of your bedroom.”

After eight weeks of testing, I have learned some useful things about the software, although I certainly do not feel any smarter. That is not a surprise; I am not old yet, and I do not have cognitive difficulties. “If you have a serious problem,” says Jonas Jendi, CEO of Cogmed America, “the training is worth a lot more.”

There is the question of whether any of these programs are as good as exercising your brain on your own-by playing chess, say, or learning to play a musical instrument. Possibly not, but they are convenient packages that integrate training from many areas.

Is any one of the programs aimed at adults better than the others? Hard to say, and a proper comparative study may never be done. Start with the reviews below, which are organized by program target areas, and then take advantage of the many free trial offers online to see what works best for you. What matters most is whether you enjoy using one and whether it challenges you at the right level. Will you stick with it, or will it become a clothes rack? Your brain health is at stake.


Maker: Posit Science

Name: Brain Fitness Program Classic

For: Seniors

Price: $395 (single user); $495 (two users)

What you get: CD-ROM, instruction manual, headphones

Where to buy:

Brain Fitness Program Classic improves your ability to recognize sounds as speech and comprehend language. It begins at the most elementary levels-upward and downward frequency swoops common in spoken language-and progresses to syllables, words, sentences and stories. Its effectiveness is backed by scientific trials carried out with children and older adults.

Brain Fitness has a gold-plated user interface, as if you are at an expensive private clinic. The on-screen buttons are huge. The instructions are geared toward users whose response times are a little slower than those of the average middle-age adult-it is pretty clear what you are supposed to do most of the time, although older adults may find the long intro sections more helpful than I did.

During the training period I could notice my hearing acuity improve, in the way you would become able to discern the woodwinds in a Mozart symphony after taking a music appreciation class.

I found the Brain Fitness exercises extremely repetitive, however, and thus about as much fun as running on a treadmill. The designers try to compensate for this lack of novelty with images and Flintstones-like animations, which provide the user with a reward for sticking it out. Waiting to see exactly what bland shenanigans the piano player and his dog would get up to in the next clip kept me motivated sufficiently to finish the week. Merzenich, now 66, says that an improved version of Brain Fitness, out sometime in the spring of 2009, will be more gamelike and entertaining.