Brain Training: Fact or Fiction?

The success of Nintendo Brain Age and the PBS special devoted to brain plasticity are signs of growing interest in Brain Training.
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TechCrunch reports today that start-up Lumos Labs has raised $3m to develop brain training games.

From the press release:

"Lumos Labs is at the center of a booming interest in cognitive exercise and the emerging science about the remarkable plasticity of the brain," said Amish Jani of Pequot Ventures.

This and other developments (such as the success of Nintendo Brain Age, and the PBS special devoted to brain plasticity) are signs of growing interest and an incipient market still in an immature stage--and that has resulted in much misinformation and confusion.

Consumers, educators and health professionals will be reading more and more about programs like Posit Science, Dakim, Cogmed, Fast ForWord, MindFit, Lumosity, Happy Neuron, FitBrains, MyBrainTrainer, and more. The bad news is that it is difficult to separate marketing from scientific claims, and to understand which program, if any, may be a good complement to other healthy lifestyle choices.

The reality is that, in this emerging field, no single company or product has an overwhelming amount of efficacy research behind. There is no General Solution, but useful tools for specific groups of people with specific goals, and budgets.

Let me address some typical questions:

Do these programs cure Alzheimer's? No program can claim that it specifically delays or prevents Alzheimer's disease beyond general statements, such as that mental stimulation together with other lifestyle factors (nutrition, physical exercise and stress management) can contribute toward building a cognitive reserve that may reduce the probability of Alzheimer's-related symptoms.

What can brain training do? Human cognitive abilities evolve in a variety of ways with aging. Some improve, such as pattern recognition and emotional self-regulation; some decline, for example, speed of processing, working memory and novel problem-solving. Certain mental abilities have proved to be trainable, though, and this provides the opportunity to improve brain performance and quality of life, potentially prolonging one's independence and autonomy.

How do I evaluate whether any program is good for me or my clients, patients or residents? Ask what cognitive skills you want trained. Some programs present the benefits in such a nebulous way that it is impossible to tell whether or not they will yield any results. The general wording "Brain training" itself is of limited benefit because such activities as gardening or learning a new language "train" the brain, too. One must ask whether an improvement experienced in a brain training program will transfer to real life, and usually that happens when a person trains the cognitive skill or skills that are specifically relevant-there are no general solutions to all problems. Assessments are needed that are distinct from the exercises. Last year, SharpBrains. released a 10-question checklist to help people evaluate the growing number of programs making brain-related claims. You can download a complimentary copy here (PDF).

Is this just a fad that will soon vanish, or a first wave of many? I believe technology is emerging as a welcome tool for evaluating and training specific brain functions, and this will enable the increasingly rapid growth of a cognitive fitness field that can parallel physical fitness.

Now, what do you think?

Note: sections of this article are adapted from a Feature In Focus article and reprinted with permission from the American Society on Aging.