January 29, 2010
AARP Bulletin
Stacey Colino

Increasingly, neuroscientists, gerontologists and psychologists are gaining a greater appreciation for the brain’s neuroplasticity—that is, its ability to continuously adapt and rewire itself. The brain, we now know, creates new neurons and new connections (synapses) between neighboring neurons in response to stimulating or challenging experiences. “The more neurons and the greater diversity of connectivity you have between neurons, the more cognitive reserve you have,” says dementia specialist Mark Mapstone, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Rochester.

Cognitive reserve, he explains, is a set of mental skills that “makes the brain more resilient to aging and disease.”

The theory is that regular mental stimulation helps enhance and maintain cognitive abilities as a person ages, and may prevent or delay the mild age-related cognitive impairment we all face after age 40. There’s even some evidence that frequent participation in cognitively stimulating activities is associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to research at the Rush-Presbyterian-St.-Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago.

Games people play
Now, these promising concepts are being adapted to computer-based brain fitness programs, which usually take one of three approaches: online subscription programs (such as CogniFit Personal Coach and Lumosity), software programs for your computer (such as Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program and InSight), and programs for portable game players (like Brain Age and Brain Age 2for the Nintendo DS). Alternatively, some senior centers offer brain-training programs such as Dakim Brain Fitness, which are more sophisticated than some of the home versions. Other home programs, such as Cogmed, can be used with a qualified coach (a psychologist or doctor) consulting by phone or over the Internet. In all cases, the exercises can be humbling: When CogniFit asked me to distinguish whether an image or a sound lasted longer, I discovered I’m terrible at time estimation.

There’s evidence that some programs may really help train your brain. In a recent study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that when adults age 65 and older followed a computer-based cognitive training program over eight weeks for an hour a day, five days per week, their auditory memory and attention improved twice as much as those in an active control group that watched DVDs and took quizzes. Those using the computer also improved dramatically in their ability to recall lists of words and sequences of numbers.

Cerebral calisthenics
Games people playMany of the programs follow the familiar principles of physical fitness. “At first you’ll go to the gym, lift light weights, but over time you’ll get stronger, it’ll get easier, and you’ll lift heavier weights and exert less energy,” explains Gary Small, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and aging at the UCLA Semel Institute and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. “The same thing happens with cognitive fitness training. In a sense, you’re building more efficient neural circuitry, which helps you develop greater brain efficiency—and that improvement can be sustained for many years.”

The hitch is that the tasks and exercises should be novel and challenging enough to stimulate your brain in ways it hasn’t seen before, but not so difficult that you burn out. In other words, says Small, “you want to train, not strain, your brain.”

Training just for the test?
Many of the programs are, in fact, designed to challenge the brain at just the right level. “But my question is: Compared to what?” says Johns Hopkins neurologist Guy McKhann, M.D. “I don’t know that they do this any better than playing competitive bridge or learning a new language would.”

Other experts also question whether any boost in brain fitness from these games will transfer to the real world. In other words, maybe they train to the test, so to speak. If a particular exercise challenges your spatial perception, for example, it may very well help you with that particular skill but not with short-term memory or response time. “The only place you improve is in the area you’re training,” Small says. “There’s not a whole lot of carryover in terms of benefits.”

The need for social contacts
There’s also the issue of what you’re skipping while parking yourself at a computer for hours of brain training. “Some folks are saying these things are detrimental because they take people away from social interactions, and it’s very clear that social interaction is very important for challenging the mind to think outside of ways you’re used to,” Mapstone says. After all, mental stimulation isn’t the only thing that helps your brain stay fit as you get older. A healthy, balanced diet, regular aerobic exercise, social interaction and stress management also contribute to keeping your brain in top shape.

So it’s probably a mistake to rely on brain calisthenics alone. But they’re not likely to hurt (if done in moderation), and they just might help maintain your brain function through the passing years.