November 19, 2007
Jon Hamilton

A new study suggests that one hour a day of intensive brain exercise can improve thinking and memory. The study — involving more than 400 adults age 65 and older — found that those who underwent training scored higher on general memory tests.

The Posit Science Brain Fitness Program takes time and effort, and it doesn’t promise miracles.

Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski from the University of Southern California led a study of more than 400 people 65 or older who participated in the program.

Those who completed 40 hours of Brain Fitness training performed significantly better on memory tests than a comparison group who spent 40 hours watching educational lectures.

After training, Zelinski says, a typical 75-year-old did as well on the tests as an untrained person 10 years younger. And the people who got training said it improved their daily lives.

“It might mean a small difference in being able to remember your grocery list when you left your list home,” Zelinski said. “So, they may remember several more items.”

Scientists already know about techniques to improve specific aspects of memory, like recalling a string of numbers. But the program appears to bolster a much wider range of memory tasks.

The Brain Fitness program comes from Posit Science, a company whose founders include a prominent brain researcher in California. Zelinski works as a consultant for the company, which funded the new study.

Dr. Henry Mahncke is the vice president for research and outcomes. He says the program takes an unusual approach — it uses sounds to improve memory.

“What it’s doing is it’s improving the speed and accuracy of processing in your auditory system,” Mahncke said.

Over time, people learn to identify shorter and shorter bursts of sound. Mahnke says that helps the brain do a better job processing information from the outside world.

But Dr. Matthew Shapiro, a neuroscientist at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, says potential buyers of this program — which costs nearly $400 retail — need to be realistic.

“To get any improvement, they’ll have to really mobilize their effort and their attention,” Shapiro said. “If they do that, they’re likely to see an improvement in their abilities, but they shouldn’t expect large changes.”

The new study was presented at the Gerontological Society of America Meeting in San Francisco.