News: Cranial Calisthenics?
Specialized brain workouts raise skepticism among scientists


by Nicky Penttila

January 11, 2007

The common desire to stay mentally sharp, particularly in life’s later years, is giving rise to for-profit "brain trainers" and Web sites offering mental exercises for a fee.

But not everyone is sold.

Sites such as PositScience.com, HappyNeuron.com and MyBrainTrainer.com, and computer programs as MindFit by Vigorous Mind and the Brain Age game by Nintendo, offer puzzles and challenges that can feel like a mental workout. And all say their methods work, citing controlled experiments that they say show cognitive skills can be improved with the sort of regular training they offer.

Vigorous Mind, for example, says it has run its own studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of its product, and says it "is currently involved in several on-going validation studies, including one at Oxford University in England," according to its Web site.

That isn’t yet enough for some scientists in the field.

“I really have not seen data that’s convincing, that says you get a generalized effect from experience with a computer game or program,” says William Greenough, director of the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose research includes work on the neurobiology of the aging process. “This doesn’t mean I don’t believe it, it’s just that I don’t think they’ve presented or made their case very well.”

Web sites that say their products work “need to bring in subjects, randomly assign them to at least two groups appropriate for testing the hypothesis, and then they need to test them on situations that go outside the framework of the computer game or whatever they’ve been trained on,” he said.

One would expect that people who do puzzles or play video games will get better and faster at the puzzles and games, but do they get better or faster at anything in real life?

"I’m skeptical," says neurologist Guy McKhann of Johns Hopkins University and a Dana Foundation advisor. "It’s not clear there is anything in particular in these programs that would work for you better than the standard advice."

Tried and true

So far, Greenough said, the relatively few well-designed, controlled studies with humans have shown that mental challenges can promote real, positive changes in the brain and its processing speed, but only on the same sort of narrow tasks as the mental challenge itself. The increases are not “generalized,” meaning they don’t sweep across many skills or areas of brain function, he said.

Two other methods do show generalized positive changes in the brain when tested in animals: physical exercise alone and living in an “enriched environment,” which for rats means living in a cage with a few other rats (social enrichment), toys (‘intellectual’ enrichment) and an exercise wheel (physical enrichment). Researchers now are trying to tease out which parts of this environment do the improving, and which might be just window dressing.

In early testing, it appears that there may be a compounding effect, where the sum of improvement is greater than it would be if a rat (or person, theoretically) were to do just one or another. That matches the findings of the large MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging. In one part of the study, researchers gave mental and physical tests to 3,000 volunteers between the ages of 70 and 80, and selected 1,200 who scored the highest. Ten years later, some of the volunteers had maintained their excellent mental function, while others had not.

What were the still-sharp ones doing differently? Not one, but four things:

• Acting: They are more physically active.

• Thinking: They are more mentally active.

• Feeling: They see a role for themselves in society, including contributing to family and community, and felt good about themselves.

• Monitoring: They take care of their hearts.

The only single method tested in people so far that has shown solid, generalized improvement in brain function and capacity is physical: aerobic exercise. In a study published in November by Arthur Kramer and colleagues at the University of Illinois, older people who participated in a mild aerobic exercise class three times a week (mostly, walking) showed increases in brain volume, especially in the areas that often grow weaker due to “age-related deterioration.”

“After only three months, the people who exercised had the brain volumes of people three years younger,” Kramer told the Seattle Press-Intelligencer.

Working the brain directly

Testing on mental exercising alone is still in the early stages, as researchers work to learn as much as possible from their animal studies before they go trying them on people.

In early work, basic mental "training sessions" (memory exercises, puzzles) were found to be beneficial in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. The study found that such activities improved memory, concentration and problem-solving skills in healthy adults ages 65 and older. Such exercises are offered for free on the AARP Web site.

There is evidence that people who challenge themselves cognitively can get their minds in better shape, said McKhann, co-author of Keep Your Brain Young  (published by Dana Press) with fellow aging specialist Marilyn Albert of the Johns Hopkins Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. The question, he said, is how you do that.

"One way is to set up a pattern of challenging yourself, via lectures, book clubs, more-challenging crossword puzzles. Marilyn and I are asked this all the time, and our answer is 'whatever turns you on.'"

McKhann has visited some of the newer for-profit Web sites that offer brain training, and found some of their advice practical. But he agrees that their claims, for the most part, are unproven.

"It’s like when people go to a physical trainer, and set up a pattern of exercise," he said. "When they get results, it’s easy to credit the trainer, but it is the practice, the new habits they have set up, that has done the work."

Greenough agrees. “I’d say there are lots of ways to get mental exercise, and if there’s one thing that a Web site has for sure not shown, it’s that their mental exercise is better than another form of mental exercise that you might choose to do for yourself.”