November 1, 2007
Phil Scott

Forget for a moment the time wasted by young couch spuds playing apocalyptic sounding video games such as World of Warcraft, Resident Evil 4, and Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Despite that dull, butt-shaped impression they’ve left on the sofa, the players actually may acquire some skills: fierce hand-eye coordination, rapid problem-solving, and laser-like focus. They don’t even realize they’ve chowed down a whole bag of Doritos. Now science tells us that as we age, even a Baby Boomer’s brain becomes less able to accurately process and record information that arrives with split-second timing. So can electronic gaming improve our brain functions, too?

Of course, you probably can’t see yourself wasting a moment of time or an iota of dignity playing Tomb Raider, even if Angelina Jolie did star in the movie. Take heart. A recent spate of computer programs offers what’s known by the more dignified term “cognitive training.” These brain exercises all promise to heighten mental acuity. They include Happy Neuron, which tests memory, attention, language, “executive function,” and visual and spatial skills; PositScience’s Brain Fitness Program, which promises to speed up brain function, improve accuracy, and strengthen memory; and, which vows to improve mental speed, accuracy, and consistency. These programs all have Web sites that offer free trials. Totally free of charge, NASA’s Cognition Lab offers five online tests of recognition, mnemonics, and recall.

How Do These Brain Games Work?
Take MyBrainTrainer. The game I sampled consists of a reaction-time contest involving a semicircle of eight lights divided into three sections: three lights on the left, three on the right, and two in the middle. Three of those lights will light up, and your mission is to discern which single light is farthest from the other two (simply understanding the instructions promises to improve mental acuity). You’re graded in four categories.

After I did the entire series of 16 exercises, the program posted my scores:

Overall Performance: 41.10. The average is 100. Not good at all.
Reaction Time, measured in milliseconds: 1230. Okay, so I hesitated a few times, but my time improved as the contest went on.
Accuracy: 100% Which should make up for my disastrous performance in the first two categories.
Concentration Level: 540. Here, you want to shoot for the lowest score, 100, but my excuse is that the air conditioner noise distracted me, and I probably have attention deficit disorder anyway.
It was my first run-through of the test, and I’m a 46-year-old male. To get proper results and improve cognitive skills, you need to play all the programs a few times a week over several weeks.

Is Cognitive Training Any Good?
According to a study of 180 people 60 and older published in the August 3, 2006 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the benefits of PositScience’s Brain Fitness Program were sustained 3 months after playing it. In another study published in the December 20, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association 2,832 adults 65 and older who received cognitive training found they still performed better on tests 5 years later.

Not all neuroscientists are so sure. William T. Greenough, director of the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says controlled studies have indeed shown that similar mental challenges have positive results, but only in the narrow, specific tasks highlighted in the games. Sure, I can pick out the single light farthest from the other two, but will it improve my overall reaction time?

And Guy McKhann, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, questions the validity of the research. “People say doing these mental games is beneficial,” he says, “but compared to what?” Some of that is the practice effect. “The issue,” he continues, “is whether the benefit is specific to what they were doing or does it spill over to cognitive areas � decision making, language function, etc.? Are you any better off doing that than doing the Times crossword puzzle, reading a lot, or going to a lecture? That’s the kind of data nobody has.” Of course, having fun with the exercises certainly does no harm.

Brain Games You Can Try
These cognitive training programs all offer free trials through their Web sites, so you can try out the games before laying down the cash. NASA’s Cognition Lab has no charge at all.

Happy Neuron: $9.95/month, $99.95/year
PositScience Brain Fitness Program: Program CD: $395 $9.95 for 3 months, $29.95 for 1 year
NASA Cognition Lab: No charge

For More Mental Workouts… Find free Games and Puzzles on, AARP The Magazine Online, and AARP Segunda Juventud Online, a bilingual publication from AARP. Find more information about Brain Health on