Linda Stahl
The Courier-Journal
December 21, 2006

ou worry about your flabby thighs or weak biceps, but don’t forget your brain. It’s aging too.

It starts shrinking when you’re in your 30s and the process picks up speed in your 50s.

Science isn’t completely clear on what we can do about brain decline, but it doesn’t hurt to think about taking better care of your noggin.

Makers of new Web-based programs and electronic software and gadgets certainly want you to do just that. They offer (for a fee) a chance to do the mental equivalent of calisthenics to stave off decay and even boost brainpower.

For two months, Sally Lily of Oldham County has been hitting the mental gym by playing “Brain Training” games on a Nintendo DS handheld system.

As a player of “Brain Age” games she’s gone from an age of 80 to 54, according the game’s scoring.

Lily, who is actually 64, said the ideal test result is age 20. “I don’t think that will ever happen,” she said with a laugh.

Lily holds the dual-screen Nintendo device open like a book, performing activities on a touch-sensitive screen. It also gives her vocal cues through a built-in microphone.

Lily was never a video-game player, but she always liked playing cards and board games. She said she read about the Nintendo product and thought it would be interesting to use while she was taking care of a grandson. So she bought it.

As a “Brain Age” player, she does a variety of activities, including the puzzle game Sudoku. When she’s not using her Nintendo DS, she plugs it in to recharge, just like a cell phone.

“I use it almost every day. It’s very addictive and kind of gets to be fun,” she reported.

Is it making her feel mentally sharper? “It does sharpen you,” Lily said and then added, “It can’t hurt.”

Other games and exercises to limber up your neurons are out there, including MyBrainTrainer.com, www.happy-neuron.com, www.brainbuilder.com and www.sharpbrains.com.

Learning new tricks

This online industry grew out of the idea that the aging brain can, after all, be taught new tricks, a belief spawned by research in the early 1990s by Michael Merzenich of the University of California at San Francisco. He discovered the brain remains plastic throughout life and that with training can learn new skills at any age.

Merzenich later founded Posit Science, which offers the Brain Fitness Program, a series of computer-based exercises.

This summer, Posit Science released two studies supporting its product’s helpfulness. One involved 182 healthy people 60 and older who divided into groups that did Brain Fitness Program exercises for eight weeks, watched educational DVDs or continued their normal routines.

After eight weeks, researchers found the computer group could complete the training exercises eight times faster than when they started, while the other control groups stayed the same. Meanwhile, the computer group’s general memory improved significantly, too, while the control groups’ did not.

Three months later, the Brain Fitness Program group scored just as high as they had right after their training ended.

A second small study of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment used PET scans of their brains before and after the study and showed evidence of memory gain in those who used the Brain Fitness Program.

Whether it works or not

But these studies were very small, and there are scholars who feel the contention that brain exercises will arrest mental decline are ill-founded.

One of them is Dr. Timothy Salthouse, a University of Virginia psychology professor, who recently analyzed a large number of studies meant to show that if we use our brains we won’t lose brain power.

In the new journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, Salthouse wrote earlier this year that there is “little scientific evidence that engagement in mentally stimulating activities alters the rate of mental aging.”

But he doesn’t discourage mental exercises:

“Although my professional opinion is that at the present time the mental-exercise hypothesis is more of an optimistic hope than an empirical reality, my personal recommendation is that people should behave as though it were true.

“That is, people should continue to engage in mentally stimulating activities because even if there is not yet evidence that it has beneficial effects in slowing the rate of age-related decline in cognitive functioning, there is no evidence that it has any harmful effects, the activities are often enjoyable and may contribute to a higher quality of life. …

“If you can still do it, then you know you have not yet lost it,” he concluded.

So whether you like the new computer and electronic mental-exercise games or prefer something else, pumping neurons isn’t a bad idea.

Consumer Reports on Health in its November issue suggested a variety of mental activities, including old standbys chess, bridge, crossword puzzles, memorizing poems and playing a musical instrument.

The latest research

A study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the benefits of relatively brief cognitive training (10 sessions each lasting an hour to 75 minutes) persisted for as long as five years in people 65 and older.

Some participants were trained to improve their reasoning by finding a pattern in a letter or word series. Others trained their memory by remembering lists of words and sequences of items. Another group practiced to improve the speed of their thinking by identifying an object on a computer screen after brief exposure to it. A fourth group received no training.

A subset of subjects in the ACTIVE study of 2,802 adults received more computer-based visual attention training. That group performed better on actual daily tasks, such as reacting to road traffic signs and reading instructions on medicine bottles, according to Dr. Frederick W. Unverzagt, a neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and leader of the Indiana University School of Medicine site, one of six sites where the study was done.

He said that while the effect on the participants was “modest, it is an exciting finding because it suggests that training in basic mental abilities may have more general practical benefits.”