Do you misplace your keys or regularly miss appointments? Do you often forget the names of people you know well? Do you feel like your memory is slowly getting worse? If so, then you may find yourself considering those brain games advertised everywhere. Sales pitches such as “where the sweat is figurative, but results are real” and “your brain will thank you” are amusingly alluring. But you may find yourself wondering whether they are really worth the time and expense. You shell out the money, play a few rounds and your brain will start spitting out names, dates and pin numbers like you’re 18 again—right?
Yes, those computerized brain-training games seem like a cool idea. They are based in large part on clear evidence that living in an enriched environment with lots of mental stimulation produces positive brain changes. And we agree there’s huge potential for tapping into your own neuroplasticity (that is, the brain’s ability to change itself by remodeling nerve cell connections after experience) to enhance mental fitness and prevent age-related memory decline. The well-established benefits of early life education on reducing later risk for dementia has also given much credence to the theory that building a greater cognitive reserve capacity can help the brain compensate for injury—analagous to the concept that more cell phone towers equals fewer dropped calls. Furthermore, several brilliant neuroscientists have, in recent years, served as the designers of the best brain games on the market.
But there’s a crucial catch: most of these early studies were done on rodents. So lost in the brain game buzz is the obvious question: Are these claims true when it comes to human brain performance and aging? Can they really make your brain faster and stronger? Are there really better than the tried-and-true approach: remaining healthy, active, and engaged in the world around you? In other words, are they worth the money?
To date, more than 50 studies have examined the benefits of brain training in humans but only a handful have tested whether or not the benefits persist and transfer over to real life. Results from one of the best studies, published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, is certainly encouraging, however. As Glenn Smith of Mayo Clinic and her colleagues report, cognitively normal older adults who trained their brain were able to improve their auditory information processing speed by about 58 percent (versus 7 percent in controls). In their multi-center IMPACT trial, 487 adults ages 67 to 93 years worked for eight weeks at Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program, which seeks to improve brain function by stimulating the auditory system. The Posit Science program is premised on the idea that as we get older our brains become less efficient at processing information from the senses (not because of specific hearing or vision loss but because of degenerative changes in the brain’s associative cortex), which then leads to a decline in memory. The control group did a more conventional cognitive learning program that entailed viewing educational videos on art and history. At the end of the study the brain training group also demonstrated more gains on measures of overall cognition and memory than the control group, but the differences were less impressive (4 percent versus 2 percent improvement). Forty-eight percent of people in the active training group (versus 40 percent of controls) also reported positive changes in their daily life such as greater self-confidence, better recall of shopping lists and attending to conversations in noisy settings.
So what do these findings tell us? Clearly IMPACT demonstrated that both trained and some untrained cognitive abilities can improve after two months of structured sensory input training. But the control group also improved, albeit to a smaller extent, suggesting that even watching videos (such as The History Channel) may help!