August 24, 2009

Brain-training games get mixed scores

By Kelley Luckstein

Brain games can definitely fire up your neurons and help you learn new skills -- at least as they relatebrain-gym to the games themselves. But psychologists and neurologists still have one big question: Does mastering any of these brain training games really improve a person's thinking in real life? Can getting better at playing rock-paper-scissors, tracking birds on a screen or fielding rapid-fire math questions really help a person manage schedules, remember names and keep up with work? And can such mental gymnastics slow, or reverse, cognitive decline?


As published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in April, follow-up tests showed that the Brain Fitness group had better attention and memory than the DVD group, even on tasks that were completely different from their training. (Memorizing a list of written words, for example.) Although the researchers didn't specifically look for real-world improvements, the subjects using the Brain Fitness program did say that memory, focus and overall thinking skills improved after eight weeks of training.

"That was encouraging," says Glenn Smith, lead author of the study and a professor of psychology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn. And the results caught him by surprise.

"I went into this research as a big skeptic," Smith says. "But what [Posit Science] is trying to do makes sense."

In retrospect, the close attention and careful listening required by the program seem well-designed to encourage new connections in the brain, he says.

A few decades ago, scientists assumed that there was no way to slow or reverse signs of aging in the brain. "The view used to be that brain cells die and can't be replaced." Smith says. "Now there's a more hopeful notion that the brain is malleable and plastic."


LA Times By Chris Woolston, 08/24/09


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