December 10, 2010
San Jose Mercury News
Sue McAllister

You can shape up your biceps and abs — but what about your gray matter?

At an Oakland adult education class, students are working on “brain health” software exercises to do just that, specifically to hone their ability to hear and process sounds quickly and accurately — and maybe, in the process, rewire their brains.

Jim Borland, 56, of Alameda, swears it’s working. “I sing in a choir, and I notice I am hearing others more clearly,” he says.

The idea of “brain training” has been gaining popularity since a 2006 study from the National Institutes of Health suggested that a cognitive training program can have lasting, though narrow, benefits. Numerous companies are touting products such as online games and software packages designed to improve mental sharpness and memory. More are sure to be developed as the number of users, both in the classroom and at home, continues to grow. But the scientific community is divided about whether such exercises can really slow a decline of mental faculties.

Borland and his 13 classmates are examples of the brain health phenomenon’s galloping popularity in the past few years.

“There is more awareness right now that, if the brain is so plastic and so flexible, what are the tools that can guide that neuroplasticity into a good direction?” says Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive and co-founder of market research firm SharpBrains.

The company, which focuses on brain-fitness products, estimates that consumers spent about $70 million on them last year, up 40 percent from $50 million in 2008. Schools, employers and health care companies spent more than $200 million in 2009, the firm says.

The booming interest in brain health is driven by two groups, according to Fernandez: people worried about losing their sharpness and memory as they age, and people who have had a brain injury or problem.

But can software really sharpen aging brains, or stave off dementia?

The 2006 NIH data, stemming from what’s known as the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) Study, stopped short of saying that. What it showed was that 10 brain-training sessions of 60 or 75 minutes resulted in measurable benefits five years after the training was completed.

“There is no magic pill that prevents Alzheimer’s or doubles our IQ,” Fernandez says. However, he adds, research shows that “well-designed and targeted training” can improve specific brain functions. The key is for people to know which function they want to work on — say memory or visual perception — and choose the right product. To use an example from the gym, “Abdominal exercises won’t improve your biceps,” Fernandez says.

Some of the biggest-name companies in the brain-fitness business are based in the Bay Area, including Lumos Labs, maker of Lumosity, an online brain-training program that has added 7 million new users this year; and Posit Science, maker of the Brain Fitness and DriveSharp products, among others. (Posit Science’s Brain Fitness product has been used as an incentive gift for KQED supporters for four years, and is the second-best-performing incentive the station has ever had.)

Posit Science products cost $89 to $395; subscription-based Lumosity starts at $15 a month.

But consumers should beware, warns Michael Greicius, medical director of the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders. While research has shown that the brain can be trained to improve on specific tasks, the results should not be interpreted to mean that mental functions will improve generally, or that brain-training exercises will prevent a general decline or Alzheimer’s disease, he explains.

Patients frequently ask him about the usefulness of brain-training programs, and he consistently advises them not to spend money on these products. “All of these things are playing largely on people’s fear of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.

Going to a movie with a friend and talking about it later, playing Legos with grandkids or joining a book club are all cheaper ways of giving the brain a workout, he says. “If there is a training regimen that is likely to help with staving off dementia, it is a mixture of aerobic and muscle training — just physical fitness,” Greicius adds.

Nonetheless, many people are intent on trying to improve specific areas of cognition. The Oakland students in instructor Teri Barr’s adult education class, including Borland, are working on their ability to process sounds.

Some of the exercises ask students to differentiate between similar sounds, like “baa” and “paa.” That’s an easy one, but later things get harder. Another segment asks students to listen to and remember a series of words that sound similar, like cap, cup, tap and tack. Not so tough when there are four words, but really hard at nine words. A “listen and do” exercise asks students to drag things around the computer screen after hearing the directions once: Move the girl to the market, then the construction worker to the postal worker, then the boy to the dog, then the police officer to the doctor. Got that? Eventually the voice giving the directions speeds up.

“The whole program is designed to be continually challenging,” Barr says.

This class is working with technology from Posit Science, but Barr has also used Lumosity programs and those from CogniFit. The benefits her students have noticed include being more organized and alert, more focused and better at remembering things. Another result surprised Barr: Students tell her they feel more confident and empowered to succeed.

Five years ago, after Sandy Kok had cancer surgery and was looking for ways to improve her health, she stumbled across one of Barr’s classes and has been hooked on brain-training exercises ever since. “All of a sudden I’m going, ‘I can remember license plates.’ I never remembered license plates even before I was sick,” says the Oakland resident, who is in her 60s.

It’s not just the 50-and-older set who want to hone their skills. Plenty of competitive young people are checking out brain-training software, too, says Joe Hardy, senior director of research at Lumos Labs. “There’s a younger adult group that is more sort of interested in that achievement side of things, in getting ahead, in a sense.”