Alice Dembner
The Boston Globe
January 8, 2007

Thinking of joining the crowd at the gym this month? What about a gym for the brain?

A growing number of companies are marketing computer programs and games that they say will help aging Americans stay mentally sharp and perhaps ward off inevitable decline and lurking dementia. Some individuals and assisted living centers are buying these products.

But experts say there is little evidence that the brain training programs are worth the time and price.

Programs on the market make many claims about mental improvement, but none has yet undergone rigorous independent testing. The programs include MindFit by a Newton company, Brain Age by Nintendo, and Brain Fitness by Posit Science in San Francisco. They take varying approaches but generally involve repeated practice with increasing challenge in multiple areas of thinking aimed at improving the brain’s ability to process information.

Richard Suzman, who oversees behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging, said the downside of using the programs include “harm to the wallet or false hope,” or health setbacks if people spend time brain-training instead of getting physical exercise.

But others say, despite the lack of evidence, that the programs may be worth trying, particularly in conjunction with other activities that may help with brain health such as a healthy diet, exercise, managing stress, and keeping up social contacts.

“In five or 10 years, we may discover that some of these do have benefits,” said Timothy Salthouse, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia with no financial interest in the products. “If you have something that you think is mentally stimulating and that you enjoy, it at least provides you with reassurance that you haven’t lost it yet.”

The brain ages at different speeds, but overall, memory and reasoning typically show decline as people reach 60.

Studies have shown that training in memory, reasoning, reaction time, or other mental skills helps people perform better on tests of those skills in the short-term. And two studies have suggested this limited benefit could last as long as seven years. The training in one skill, such as reasoning, however, doesn’t typically carry over to another, such as memory, according to years of research.

And only last month did the first rigorous study suggest that brain training could positively affect daily-life activities and might delay age-related declines in everyday functioning. Even in that large, government-funded study, the evidence was far from conclusive.

The study involved 2,800 healthy seniors in six cities, including Boston, who were randomly assigned to 10 to 18 training sessions in memory, reasoning, or speed, or a control group. Five years after the initial training, seniors in the reasoning group reported — on a questionnaire — slightly less decline in their ability to perform daily tasks such as shopping or managing money. That effect was not confirmed in objective tests, however, raising questions about how real the change was.

Those tests did show that seniors trained in speedy processing of information improved slightly in everyday tasks of speed, such as how quickly they could make change. Other, smaller studies have shown a modest carryover from speed training to more attentive driving.

But memory, the skill seniors most fear losing, has proven the hardest to improve long-term.

Organizers of the big study, called ACTIVE, said their results challenge 100 years of negative evidence and could pave the way for effective training.

“The evidence of everyday impact was small and specific,” said Michael Marsiske, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida who helped lead the study. “Now we need to look at how we can tweak these interventions to produce larger real-world effects.”

He noted that the training was modest — 10 hours, plus another eight one or three years later — and restricted to a single area for each senior. Longer and broader training might have more impact on daily life, they said, and might be more evident as trainees age.

Results of studies by companies marketing products are much less conclusive.

Executives of Vigorous Mind, the Newton firm that sells MindFit, say a small, preliminary study of their nine-month computer-based training program indicated that people scored higher on mental tests and other tasks a few months later, but those results have not been published or reviewed by independent scientists.

Michael Merzenich, a neuroscience professor at the University of California and the chief scientific officer of Posit Science, a company with a competing product targeting listening skills and brain processing, says an independent study of 500 people is nearly complete. There is no federal review of behavioral products such as these, although all marketing is subject to federal truth in advertising rules.

One of the participants in the speed-training portion of the ACTIVE study, Sarah M. Lavi of Brookline, saw contradictory results. She noticed her reaction time on computer tests decline over the five years of the study. But she believes “it did a great deal for me” in life, helping her read faster and with more comprehension as well as pay more attention to her surroundings while walking.

Now 80, she said she reads and does crossword puzzles for fun and in the hope of exercising her mind while she takes a break from computer training. Cognitive specialists, however, are finding that crosswords are not particularly effective at brain training, perhaps because verbal abilities are naturally preserved with age.

Programs to train the brain

Experts say there is no definitive evidence that brain training programs help with everyday life, but they generally don’t harm anything but your wallet. Here are a few examples of programs and their costs:

MindFit. Computer-based program that says it trains individuals in 14 skills over nine months. Recommends 20 minutes, three times a week. Touts testing in 75 individuals, with more tests underway; none published. First developed and sold in Israel and Europe. $139.

Vigorousmind.com. 888-769-6463.

Brain Age. Nintendo game using stylus or voice — 10 exercises, including reading aloud and doing math. Recommends using “minutes a day.” No specific studies cited on website but says game activates a key part of the brain. $19.99 at Best Buy online, plus Nintendo DS system for $130.

Brainage.com.

Brain Fitness Program. 40 hours of computer-based training in six areas. Recommends one hour a day, five times a week. Focuses on improving listening ability. Preliminary published study hints at small benefit. Larger, independent study underway. Home version is $395.

Positscience.com, 800-514-3961.