August 6, 2010
Kristen Bellstrom

David Wilson is playing games again. He’s staring intently at the computer monitor, clicking his way through a screen full of brightly colored objects and using Ms. Pac-Man-style moves to guide his cursor through a series of mazes. “Ugh, it’s getting faster now,” he groans, as the flashing images start to pick up the pace. With a furrowed brow and tight-knuckled fingers gripping the computer mouse, Wilson seems a little more serious than your average gamer, and no wonder. After all, there’s more at stake than becoming the high scorer at the arcade. The banker is here with an important goal: building his brainpower.

About twice a week, Wilson comes to the iThink Brain Gym and Mind Spa in Shreveport, La., where he spends 20 minutes attempting to fine-tune his mental muscle with tests and brain “exercises” like the ones he’s working on today. But he didn’t start this workout routine because of memory lapses, fear of Alzheimer’s or his advancing age. In fact, he’s just 34.

America is in the midst of another fit-ness revolution—and this one has nothing to do with your glutes. Wilson’s exercise is part of his foray into brain training, a burgeoning industry that claims you can improve mental function much the same way you build muscle or up your time on the treadmill. Encompassing everything from computer-based tests and i-Phone apps to spa offerings and “brain gyms,” the brain boom is already big business. The market for mental-fitness products reached $265 mil-lion in 2008, up more than 160 percent from 2005. And experts say it’s still growing.

Now the brain-power movement has a new target in its sights: the younger generation. A recent survey of early adopters of brain-training software and industry insiders found that 66 percent are in their 50s or younger, with 14 percent still in their 30s or below. Indeed, what was once mostly marketed to the gray-haired set to stave off senior moments has become a new tool for everyone from multitasking moms to executives looking to find, keep or advance at a job. And in tough economic times, this latest group may be the fastest growing of all, with some bosses and companies openly encouraging people to get on the brain treadmill as soon and as intensely as possible.

In fact, even at a time when many businesses are scaling back employee benefits, some have decided that the upside of adding brain-training programs outweighs the cost. Last fall insurance provider Nationwide began offering workers a program called MyBrainSolutions, a computer application that mixes brain exercises targeting memory and attention span with programs aimed at reducing stress and negative feelings. The idea of a computer game devoted to increasing positive thinking “sounds a little silly,” admits Nationwide’s associate vice president for health and productivity, Kathleen Herath. But since the program was instituted, she says, at least one manager has reported that many of her supervisees are notably more focused and productive.

For Howard Newman, chief executive officer of New York venture capital firm Pine Brook Road Partners, the decision to start his employees on a brain-training regimen was a little less formal. Not long after trying a mental-fitness program on his own, Newman found himself breezing through equations and staying engaged in long meetings that once would’ve put him to sleep. He was so impressed with these changes that he bought access to the same Posit Science program for his entire company and encourages employees to use it during the workday. “We’re a VC firm; we’re in an intellectual business,” he says. “To make my guys five or 10 years younger mentally is a tremendous benefit.”

Of course, few businesses would bother investing in brain-training products without some scientific backup. The foundation of the industry is the concept of brain plasticity, or the idea that the brain can change by forming new connections between brain cells. (Before this theory became widely accepted in the 1990s, it was believed nothing could be done about the decline in brain function that—believe it or not—begins in the late 20s.) Most brain-training companies say their products work by forcing the brain to do increasingly difficult and unfamiliar tasks, a process that creates fresh connections.

A number of studies have been done to show the effects of brain training, but perhaps the biggest splash was made by one published last year by the University of Michigan. Unlike most experiments, which have concentrated on older people or those with cognitive problems, this study found that brain training improved fluid intelligence—usually associated with problem solving—even in college-age subjects at the peak of brain health. This was the evidence developers needed so they could start pitching these products to a younger generation of potential users.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the brain-training market is ready to go mainstream. “There are now all kinds of products out there, but very few have evidence of their effectiveness,” says Jerri Edwards, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida who studies brain-fitness tools. As the industry has exploded into smartphone apps and video games, Edwards says, it’s become more difficult for consumers to differentiate between the science-based programs and those that may be fun or even useful—but unlikely to actually create new pathways in the brain. One recent study at a French university, for instance, found that Nintendo’s games Brain Age and Brain Age 2 were no more effective at boosting memory power than crosswords or sudoku. Nintendo says it makes no claim that they’re scientifically proven to improve cognitive function but says the games “can stimulate players’ brains.”

Even some in the industry are concerned by the hype. “I think people are overexaggerating the revolution of brain plasticity,” says Evian Gordon, CEO of Brain Resource, the company that produces MyBrainSolutions. Effective brain training is difficult and time consuming, he says, and he’s concerned that hyperbolic marketing could prompt users to expect too much, too soon. Indeed, a 2009 survey of buyers of brain-fitness products, conducted by research group SharpBrains, found that 14 percent of buyers disagreed with the statement “I got real value for my money,” while 33 percent had no opinion. And for younger users, who are less likely to see dramatic changes, the disappointment factor could be even larger.

But here at the iThink brain gym, which is sandwiched between a gas station and the Blonde Ambition hair salon in a Shreveport shopping plaza, owner Lisa Brutto is betting that the brain boom is just beginning. iThink, which opened last fall, offers $60-a-month memberships for unlimited access to their Cogni-Fit brain-training software, along with massage therapy and a host of brainteaser-style board games. Brutto says that the gym raised a few eyebrows at first (one person asked her if the games were embedded with subliminal messages) but that it’s beginning to catch on. And while she has had some competition from other services aimed at improving mental skills in kids and seniors, she says people in the middle have turned out to be a surprisingly ripe market. “That’s getting to be something of a sweet spot for me,” she says.

Wilson, the banker, stops by iThink once or twice a week for his brain exercises. He says the routine is fun and gives him a small edge at work, particularly when it comes to remembering an endless rotation of balances and account numbers. But as many brain-stretchers are discovering, some simple exercises turn out to be not-so-simple at all—which of course is the whole idea in the first place. Wilson has had trouble with ones where he had to identify fruits, birds and plants, like the on-screen calla lily. “I don’t know what kind of flower that is,” he says.