April 3, 2008
Robin Tierney

Playing mind games is now a good thing.

Mounting evidence shows that engaging in brain fitness workouts can help defer mental decline and the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. “Use it or lose it” applies not only to muscles but to neurons — nerve cells in the brain — and neural pathways. They can be strengthened by playing mental games.

Happy Neuron’s newly enhanced Web site features free games, a free trial of the full site, and a “virtual coach” that compares performance to other players and customizes workouts. Direct feedback continually challenges players to progress beyond their comfort zones.

“Other brain games and activities, including crossword puzzles and brain teasers, stimulate only certain areas of the brain,” explains chief operating officer Laura Fay. “Happy Neuron was designed by a medical and scientific team to ensure a cross-functional brain stimulation of memory, language, visual spatial, attention and executive functions — all the necessary areas to truly stimulate new neuron development.”

Various games on the site challenge players to scan for patterns, find the even numbers in ascending order within a grid, and reconfigure the “Bells of Notre Dame” with the least number of moves.

Does participation in cognitive activities “cause” the brain to strengthen — or do the existing abilities of high-functioning people “cause” them to want to engage in cognitive pursuits?

“Most of the Web-based games have not been specifically evaluated as to whether they improve anything besides ‘practice effects,’” says Liz Zelinski, professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California. Meaning, the more people play, the better they get.

“Posit Science has funded the only large randomized controlled clinical trial of a widely available cognitive training program,” Zelinski says. A paper on this trial is now under review.

In any case, online brain games can make productive use of downtime, says Jan Boyar of Silver Spring, Md. “I played [Happy Neuron] while the repairman was fixing the fridge.”