March 24, 2009
Scientific American
Gary Stix

The popularity of brain training games has great appeal to aging baby boomers who may be having second thoughts about some of those mind-altering experiences of their now distant youth. The real value of these over-engineered video games, however, may not be for lapsed hippies: Research has shown that the games may improve the mental functioning of the learning disabled and the memory impaired – and now comes word that they may reduce the seemingly intractable symptoms of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenics suffer from a long list of cognitive deficits that may affect attention, memory and the ability to set priorities and manage everyday affairs.

One answer may lie in computerized brain-training software, according to researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, who have successfully used such software from Posit Science (a company established by neuroscience pioneer Michael Merzenich) to improve cognition in schizophrenics.

The scientists conducted a study in which they split a group of 32 people diagnosed with schizophrenia in half: one group played ordinary video games and members of the other were put through 20 hours of training in exercises that switched tasks rapidly or picked out novel objects to improve a subject’s ability to categorize, predict or link information.

Their findings, presented yesterday at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting here: the brain-trained group experienced statistically significant improvement in measures of verbal learning, inhibition (impulse control) and non-verbal working memory (the brain’s RAM, where info is temporarily stored). There were no significant improvements, however, in the speed of mental processing or verbal working memory.