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Better Thinking: Brain Games For Cognitive Training

Posted Dec 13 2011 9:21pm

One piece of good news is that using the Internet, particularly searching the Web, can slow our normal age-related cognitive decline. Googling is good for your brain.

As Dr. Gary  Small, Direc­tor of UCLA’s Mem­ory Clinic and Cen­ter on Aging, said in an interview, “Our study ‘Your brain on Google: Pat­terns of cere­bral acti­va­tion dur­ing Inter­net search­ing’ (Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Geri­atric Psy­chi­a­try 2009;17:116–126) showed that Inter­net savvy older adults had sig­nif­i­cantly greater neural activ­ity search­ing online com­pared with inter­net naive con­trols.

“Our fol­low up of this study showed that after one week of search­ing, there were sig­nif­i­cant increases in brain activ­ity in the pre­vi­ously naive subjects.”

From Transcript: Dr. Gary Small on Enhancing Memory and the Brain By: SharpBrains, Nov 1, 2011.

Gary Small is author of The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy For Keeping Your Brain Young .

Related book: The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness: 18 Interviews with Scientists, Practical Advice, and Product Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp , by Alvaro Fernandez, Elkhonon Goldberg.

But cognitive health and ability is vital at any age, and crucial for life success and creative thinking.

Using the web may be helpful, but it is a relatively unstructured activity compared with brain training games or cognitive fitness training, such as the programs from Posit Science and Lumosity described below.

Although there are plenty of dubious programs online, these two companies seem to have some of the best scientific confirmation and user testimonials, at least from my research.

Combating decline

A review article on brain training technology in a 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind quoted Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, about how the article author’s cognitive abilities will change (along with the rest of us):

“You’re going to slowly decline in operating speed. Your brain will become noisier and noisier in its processing.”

“Age-related cognitive decline, Merzenich says, is a combination of physical changes and negative brain plasticity. A way to combat that is “to train regularly using any of an increasingly wide range of software products designed expressly for the purpose, says Merzenich, who founded Posit Science, which makes one such package.”

From article: Brain Trainers: A Workout for the Mind , by Kaspar Mossman.

In her Health Section article in the Los Angeles Times (“ Healthy holidays, with our gift ideas “  December 12, 2011), Melissa Healy writes:

“Research tells us that for brains as for muscles, it’s either ‘use it or lose it’ — those who are intellectually engaged are less likely to show signs of dementia.

“One of the most affordable, engaging and demonstrably effective sources of brain-training games is Lumosity, produced by the San Francisco-based Lumos Labs. Lumosity’s online games exercise a variety of cognitive skills, including working memory, spatial perception, attention, speed and mental agility.

“They have great graphics and give subscribers excellent feedback to ensure progress. Plus, these games really are undergirded by strong research…

“Other games can be purchased on CD-ROMs, including brain-fitness programs from Posit Science that focus on auditory and visual processing — cognitive skills that directly affect reaction time and working memory.”

The Posit Science site lists research studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Journals of Gerontology and other academic publications. The site also has free brain performance tests.

Testimonials include these two:

Sueann Mark, PhD, found out that she had breast cancer. Chemotherapy saved her life, but it also took a toll on her mental abilities. She was suffering the effects of “chemobrain,” a condition associated with chemotherapy that results in decreased mental function. “I had the attention span of a 2-year-old,” says Dr Mark. “I couldn’t remember appointments, where I put things and I had trouble finding the right word.” Dr. Mark says she started to notice changes just a couple of weeks into the Posit Science training. “My attention span was getting longer. I could read through entire articles that a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t get through. Knowing that I was exercising my mind and reactivating it was really comforting to me.”

As a physician by training, Dr. Greg Robinson, 53, could always count on a sharp mind and keen memory. So when HIV-associated cognitive impairments first developed in his early forties, the contrast was pronounced. “I had short term memory problems so that I couldn’t remember lists of things beyond two or three,” recalls Robinson. “I had difficulty remembering names and getting a hold of common words.” At the end of the training, Robinson was amazed by “the tremendous positive benefits.” His memory returned, his dexterity, his faculty with numbers—all of the cognitive impairments he experienced before were gone or greatly reduced.

The article mentioned above: Brain Trainers: A Workout for the Mind, by Kaspar Mossman, also mentions a Mayo Clinic study of the Brain Fitness Program by Posit Science.

“Encour­agingly, the researchers found that the software boosted the brain in ways unrelated to the training. Rather than simply learning to parrot back what they had practiced, participants improved their test scores across a range of brain functions, says clinical neuropsychologist Glenn Smith, who led the study.

“People who used the program bolstered their working memory—the system that holds information in mind momentarily in tasks such as dialing phone numbers—and processing speed, two assets that deteriorate with age.”

Posit Science site

Posit Science Brain Fitness Program [at Amazon.com]

A recent Fast Company article notes “over 14 million people in 180 countries either subscribe to Lumosity’s website or have downloaded one of its iPhone apps.”

[From Why "Brain Gyms" May Be The Next Big Business , BY E.B. Boyd, Jun 16, 2011.]

“Your brain, in some ways, is like a muscle,” says Tim Chang, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners, which invested in Lumos Labs. “It needs to be kept in shape.” Lumosity doesn’t feel like mindless, monotonous work. It’s a game, and it’s captivating, Chang says.

“The part that’s very compelling is the more you play, the more you learn about yourself,” he says. “It’s even more compelling in some ways than the gym.”

From Brain-training games are new exercise craze , By Rachel Roubein, USA TODAY 8/24/2011.

The Lumosity site lists a number of testimonials, including:

“Lumosity’s daily training doesn’t take much time. It’s fun, and I can really see an improvement in my ability to think through and quickly understand new processes in my job.” -Alison B., 20

“I do a Lumosity training session daily and feel the BPI gains at work all the time. I’m much more organized, focused and I maintain better attention because of the work I do on Lumosity. I find this site so incredible that I recommend it to everyone.” -Angela B., 32

Lumosity site

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