March 16, 2007
The Washington Post
Julie Steenhuysen

Training the brain with a computer workout program may be better than classic computer games at staving off age-related mental decline, scientists reported on Friday.

While the computer and video game store has long been the bastion of teenagers and hard-core gamers, a host of new games for older folk have made their way into the stores.

The games, from companies like Nintendo and Mattel Inc., are based on studies showing that with a little training, older people can improve their brain power.

Researchers in Israel compared how one brain-training program, MindFit, fared versus a workout with a sampling of classic computer games, such as the puzzle game Tetris.

The study, funded by a grant from game maker CogniFit Ltd., involved 121 volunteers over 50 who used the MindFit training program or a sampling of computer games for three months. Volunteers were divided into groups. They were not told whether they were playing the brain workout program or a dummy program.

Both groups benefited, but the group using the MindFit program showed a statistically significant improvement in spatial short-term memory, spatial learning and focused attention.

These areas would be especially helpful with things like driving or preventing falls, a major source of injury in the elderly, said Dr. Nir Giladi, a neurologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who conducted the study.

“It looks like at least some cognitive domains are improved significantly even after a relatively short period of practice,” Giladi said in a telephone interview.

Improvement was especially pronounced in users who started out with some form of cognitive decline.

The findings, which were presented on Friday at an Alzheimer’s conference in Salzburg, Austria, were similar to a smaller study done at the University of California last year.

In that study, researchers studied 45 patients with mild cognitive impairment using either the Posit Science Brain Fitness program or comparable computer-based tasks.

The group using the Posit Science program showed a significant improvement in visual spatial memory and a trend toward short-term and long-term memory improvement.

Memory expert Dr. Gary Small, who developed Mattel’s Brain Games, said any brain workout program needs to be fun.

“If it is boring people are not going to do it,” he said.