A host of new products are arriving in stores and online to help people “exercise” their brains. But what are you getting for your time and money?
At least a dozen companies are promoting software, Web sites and gizmos that promise a daily dose of mental stimulation. The products are the vanguard of what scientists expect will be a flood of tools for a ready market: baby boomers who are anxious to stave off Alzheimer’s disease and related ills.
The thinking — and advertising — behind most of the products is simple: If 30 minutes on the treadmill each day is good for your body, 30 minutes (or so) of playing computer games and similar activities must be good for your noodle.
Scientists don’t universally accept the use-it-or-lose-it mantra. Some say there’s little evidence that engaging in mentally stimulating activities actually slows mental aging. Other researchers argue that training can improve mental performance — meaning mental exercise can help your brain function at a higher level than it would otherwise.
For the moment, definitive answers to the question — Will brain exercise help me? — will have to wait for additional testing. That said, if you wish to hedge your bets, as many consumers are doing, what follows is a look at a half-dozen of the most widely available “workouts.”
We asked a panel of nine experts, who deal with brain-aging issues in different ways as part of their day jobs, to try these tools at home and in the office. How do they work? What science, if any, is involved? And are these products more about “fun” than about health?
The answers indicate that no one has cornered the market on a tool that’s scientifically proven, easy to use — and entertaining. What is clear, the panel notes, is that the 50-plus crowd is already thinking about mental health and how best to maintain it.
“Boomers are looking at this remarkably increased longevity and, for the first time, are very seriously wondering: Are their minds going to keep up with their bodies?” says Gene Cohen, director of George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health and Humanities in Washington, D.C.
Brain Fitness Program 2.0
THE PRODUCT: This software, by San Francisco-based Posit Science Corp., has six exercises to improve the brain’s ability to process, store and recall speech. The program — 40 one-hour sessions, which you can then repeat — focuses on listening, with the user wearing provided headphones.
By improving your ability to hear and process language, you can also improve your recall, the company claims. During one exercise, you listen to sounds going up or down in frequency and click with a computer mouse on the corresponding “up” or “down” arrow. In another, you practice differentiating between sounds that are hard to tell apart, such as “dah” and “gah.”
Customers get an 85-page book explaining the science behind the program and each exercise.
THE SCIENCE: The company has hired in-house researchers and tapped about 50 outside scientists to conduct experiments showing ways the program can benefit the brain. They are led by Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, whose work is the program’s foundation.
A study published in a peer-reviewed journal last year found that the program improved memory by 10 years on average. The subjects — 62 participants ages 60 to 87 — improved their performance on program-related tasks as well as their overall memory skills, as measured with a standardized battery of neuropsychological tests. They still showed those gains three months after completing the program.
THE REVIEW: Our testers considered Brain Fitness 2.0 the easiest product to use. It provided the clearest directions, with a well-written handbook and start-up DVD. They also considered it the most scientifically grounded.
Nancy Ceridwyn, an executive at the American Society on Aging in San Francisco, says she “enjoyed the photographs of travel and animals” shown after the exercises and accompanied by a brief sound clip, which “relaxed my play and motivated me to continue.” Although she initially didn’t consider the product fun, she kept using it because “I could see improvement, and I could see where I needed to work.”
Other testers found the exercises “very basic and very boring,” in the words of Colin Milner, who heads the International Council on Active Aging, a trade group in Vancouver, British Columbia. Adds Patti Said, executive director of the New England Cognitive Center, in Hartford, Conn.: “The science is there, but if people do not find the experience both stimulating and pleasurable, they just won’t do it.”
Our testers also balked at the time commitment: “Forty-five minutes-plus a day?! I don’t have that kind of time,” Ms. Mettler says.
THE PRODUCT: This is the only portable product in the bunch. Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day is a program for the Nintendo DS, a handheld device that folds up like a book and uses a stylus. You start by assessing your so-called brain age, with the idea of playing games to lower it. The goal is to practice every day to keep yourself sharp, getting as close as you can to 20, the lowest brain age allowed. (The highest is the 80s.) The software uses simple math-related activities and literature passages to read aloud. It was released almost two years ago in Japan by Nintendo Co. and arrived in the U.S. last year.
THE SCIENCE: Brain Age features a cartoon of a Japanese neuroscientist, Ryuta Kawashima, whom Nintendo’s developers consulted. “It can make you feel sharper, but we don’t want people to think it’s a medical thing,” says Perrin Kaplan, a Nintendo spokeswoman.
THE REVIEW: Our testers, two of their husbands and a couple of teenage kids loved using this set of games on the go. The sudoku game — a math puzzle — was addictive. Our panel liked having their speed measured on a scale that runs from “walking” to “rocket-ship.”
For another math game, you write answers with a stylus as fast as you can — but the device had trouble recognizing our users’ writing. And the device’s voice-recognition software didn’t work flawlessly: During an exercise that asks the user to say the color shown on the screen, four testers had trouble getting the machine to recognize their pronunciation of the word blue.
And the program’s brain-age assessment fluctuated — wildly, in some cases. Brent Green, a Denver marketing consultant who specializes in advertising aimed at boomers, saw his brain age fall to 35 from 74 in two days. Harry Margolis, a Boston attorney who specializes in elder law, lowered his to 38 from 80. And Molly Mettler, senior vice president of Healthwise Inc., a Boise, Idaho, nonprofit, went to 23 from 80 after seven sessions, leading her to “question the meaningfulness of this measurement.”
Then there’s the concept of brain age itself. Our panel didn’t necessarily aspire to have the same brain faculties they had in their 20s. They suggested assessing “functionality” instead.
THE PRODUCT: BrainBuilder.com focuses specifically on improving the user’s working memory, according to Alex Doman, president of Advanced Brain Technologies LLC, the Ogden, Utah, education-software company that developed BrainBuilder. The Web site first puts users through a cognitive test to assess their “digit span” — the measure of how many numbers in a row you can take in, store, process and recall in the correct order. This establishes a baseline for how effectively one’s eyes and ears process bits of information, which become building blocks for memory. Mr. Doman says in the next few months, BrainBuilder is adding “a number of new exercises to make it more dynamic and interesting.”
THE SCIENCE: The company is an offshoot of the National Academy for Child Development, started by Mr. Doman’s father, an educator who spent 30 years researching digit span. Advanced Brain Technologies has tested 2,000 people for digit-span recall and is doing clinical trials to evaluate BrainBuilder’s effectiveness, Mr. Doman says.
THE REVIEW: Our testers liked the “focus” exercise, in which you hit a space bar when you see an eyeball pop up on the screen — and have to resist hitting the space bar when a blank eye shape appears. Mr. Green and Paul Nussbaum, a Pittsburgh neuropsychologist who specializes in brain health, liked the site’s “brain diary,” a tool with which users can rate their recent sleep, diet and exercise on a scale from 1 to 10 to see how it correlates with their brain-exercise results. But the way the site quantifies those results wasn’t intuitive, says Ms. Mettler, author of a self-care health guide. “Being rated ‘L3/8322′ in focus doesn’t say much to me.” Even though recalling numbers in order might be a useful way to assess memory, our users found it tedious. They rated BrainBuilder the least fun among the products sampled. One likened it to eating cooked spinach as a child.
THE PRODUCT: Quixit Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., has developed 40 Web-based games with the goal of cross-training five skills likely to decline with age: memory, attention, language, reasoning and visual/spatial skills.
For example, a memory game called An American in Paris has players match landmarks from world cities to squares on a map in a specified sequence. A tracking system keeps a record of which games players already have tried and how well they did.
THE SCIENCE: Three French scientists developed the games with an eye toward ensuring users’ mental “acuity and agility.” A pilot study in Des Moines, Iowa, found that 10 patients with memory problems showed “significant improvement in cognitive skills” after training with Happy Neuron games three times a week for six months — along with eating a specialized diet and taking part in physical exercise as part of a “brain wellness” program.
THE REVIEW: Our testers gave the games high marks for their creativity. Ms. Ceridwyn, who recently coordinated a national poll about brain-health awareness, raved about Play With the Haikus, saying it inspired her to return to writing poetry, an old hobby. “A product for edgy, caffeine-hyped baby boomers,” adds Ms. Mettler.
There were a few glitches. The games have graphics with too much white-on-gray for older eyes. And some testers had difficulty using the site’s “flash” software. Half of our testers wanted verbal instructions and other sounds. Then, there’s the ego-crushing factor. Happy Neuron told one tester she is “slow and below average.”
THE PRODUCT: This program, made by CogniFit Ltd., is loaded from a CD or downloaded online, and requires Internet access to use. It involves 24 sessions and is designed to be used for 20 minutes at a time, three times a week, for several months.
The program evaluates the starting point for each user, based on 14 memory and perception skills. Then it zeroes in on the weaker skills. The “Picasso” task, for example, trains visual short-term memory by having the user quickly scan an abstract design made up of blocks with different designs, and then recreate it within a limited time.
THE SCIENCE: CogniFit, started eight years ago by an Israeli psychologist, says it has shown in several controlled experiments that cognitive skills can improve with regular training. For example, 119 MindFit users evaluated before and after training showed “highly systematic improvement,” according to the company’s Web site. CogniFit, based in Yoqneam, Israel, has had no research findings published so far in scientific journals.
THE REVIEW: Our testers were impressed with MindFit’s assessment tools and the variety of exercises. “You had to do task-switching, and had to change your concentration. It really felt like I was using part of my brain that I don’t use very much,” Ms. Mettler says. Another plus: The product “clearly outlines the benefits of each exercise, which I found the strongest motivation for using the program.”
Adds Ms. Said: “This one was based the most solidly in cognitive science and what we think stimulates the brain.”
Our users also liked MindFit’s instant feedback. They found the program’s assessment of their individual capabilities, rather than a single number tagging their “brain age,” more satisfying and “reality-based.”
But the testers felt that the evaluation required to start the program — three sessions spread over three days — took too long, damping their enthusiasm.
THE PRODUCT: The 16 exercises in MyBrainTrainer.com last just a few minutes each and are designed to stretch reflexes, cognitive quickness, decision making, perceptual acuity, visual recognition, memory and mental ability. The site measures reaction time to the thousandth of a second and lets users track their own results.
THE SCIENCE: Fifty people who completed 21 sessions on MyBrainTrainer.com in one month showed a nine-point increase in IQ, compared with a one-point increase among a control group, according to the Los Angeles-based company. The Web-site users also showed enhanced “cognitive efficiency and speed.”
THE REVIEW: MyBrainTrainer ranked last among our testers for ease of use and clarity of directions. Still, our testers enjoyed two of the exercises: a word-to-picture matching game with an “element of surprise,” and a decision-making game that Mr. Green describes as “consistently challenging without becoming boring.” The testers also liked the option of competing online with other exercisers.
And the winner is…
When our panel of nine experts gathered (by telephone) to talk about their experiences after finishing the tests, two things became clear: The six products are tackling mental exercise in starkly different ways, focusing on working out different parts of the brain and different skill sets, from memory to hearing to reaction time. That means shoppers have a lot of different choices, with more entering the market each year.
But all those differences also made it tough to come up with a “best pick,” along with the fact that every product had at least one flaw, as noted above. In fact, our panel, composed largely of scientists, nonprofit executives and doctors, was surprised to find that their favorite picks largely came down to entertainment value — “rewards” of picturesque video, sophisticated graphics or sound. They found a need for the bells and whistles to combat boredom.
Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program 2.0 took top honors for ease of use and clear directions. Our testers concluded that Posit’s product — one of the few so far to undergo clinical trials and peer-reviewed research — had the firmest scientific grounding. But it ranked low for “fun.”
The top pick in that category was MindFit, chosen by our testers for the variety of its tasks and visual appeal. Nintendo’s Brain Age was a close second, mainly because it’s used on a handy little device.
“If cognitive exercise isn’t at least pleasant, we can’t keep people engaged for very long,” Ms. Said says. “The trick is balancing fun with the challenge. When you finish a session, you should feel like you’ve been doing some work. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.”