Improving the Parts, Helping the Whole?
One of the crucial questions for brain-training programs is whether or not the specific skills emphasized during training, such as improved auditory perception, actually generalize to other cognitive abilities. In other words, will practicing auditory perception lead to improved visual perception? And how long do training effects persist?
According to Sherry Willis and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University brain exercises that focus on training reasoning skills do translate into long-lasting improvements in daily life. The team looked at the effects of three non-computerized cognitive training modules (designed to narrowly target memory, reasoning, or processing speed skills) versus a no-contact control group in a sample of 2,832 cognitively-intact elders. The subjects received 10 one-hour sessions plus a booster at months 11 and 35. Surprisingly, at two years, there was no benefit on daily activities. But after five years the group trained in reasoning showed better performance on daily activities (an effect that was made more noticeable by the fact that some in the control group showed a decline). These results suggest that a short training session plus periodic boosters may induce long-lasting cognitive and functional benefits—sort of a “teaching a person to fish for life” effect.
Where Do We Stand Now?
The typical consumer of brain-training programs is part of the “worried well,” a group of individuals with normal brains but significant concerns about cognitive decline that comes with aging. Should you decide to try one or more commercially sold brain games, be forewarned that you may not see big improvements in your scores if you are already cognitively fit—a phenomenon referred to as the ceiling effect—or you may may max out soon due to frustration or boredom. And remember that despite their promises, no computerized brain fitness program has yet been proven to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or even to make brain cells any younger at a biological level. Improving your computer-determined “brain age” to a 29-year-old’s level will certainly give you a mental workout (and a nice ego trip!) but is currently about as well proven to reduce your risk for future memory loss as learning to hit a golf swing like Tiger Woods.
A related question is whether doctors can use brain games in ways analogous to cardiac rehab programs, to help people who already suffer from a mild memory disorder. The pioneering early work of psychiatrist David Loewenstein and colleagues at the University of Miami has demonstrated that a skills training cognitive rehab program (practicing skills such as paying bills, counting change and associating names with faces) helped individuals with early stage Alzheimer’s disease to improve on the tasks the were trained on, at least initially and for three months after the targeted intervention was completed. These benefits, though likely to degrade quickly in the face of a progressive dementia, certainly compare favorably to what has been shown with any commercial brain game.
Why Not Just Play Bridge?
Several studies have already demonstrated that exercise and socialization in later life have positive effects on cognition, and both of these are as easy as taking a walk and calling a friend. Even the simple act of practicing juggling for a week increases gray matter in brain areas involved in visual and motor activity (even if you never become very good at juggling!). What, then, is the rationale for using expensive brain games, which are essentially solitary activities that require you to shell out the bucks, sit on your gluteus maximus, stare at a screen and exercise little more than your index finger as it pushes the button on the mouse? The immediate answer is that we don’t know. We simply cannot say that brain games are better than activities such as learning a new language because no one has done those sorts of scientific comparisons. But perhaps both the hype and the promise (not to mention those tongue-firmly-in-cheek slogans) combined with a little personal financial investment is just what someone needs to find the right motivation to train their brain in a systematic manner. Think about how more effective it is to pay for a gym membership and feel obligated to go (especially when your trainer is also fit and attractive) compared with sitting in your garage alone in front of a bunch of dumbbells. On the other hand, maybe brain games lead to unnecessary frustration, boredom or even added isolation.
One thing remains clear: there is no serious harm to brain training other than the effect on your wallet (and the risk of some egg on your face if your seven-year old can play them better). And evidence is accumulating that they not only improve the skills they are designed to help, but likely generalize to other cognitive abilities and have some long-lasting benefits. If you’re working at them now, we advise you to keep it up! Perhaps computerized brain training will eventually evolve into a form of cyber-vaccine, in which socially-networked multiplayer training sessions every year will keep our brains forever young. In the meantime, you can get cheaper and easily accessed brain benefits the old-fashioned way: eat your fruits and vegetables, exercise, don’t be afraid to try new activities and be a social butterfly. Your brain will really thank you!
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His latest book is How We Decide.