December 27, 2006
The Frontal Cortex
Staff Reporter

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.