The brain retains some degree of plasticity and forcefully taxing it can, to some
extent, protect as well as revive declining skills. Video games are being considered
as a quick way to help aging brains get better at tasks like noticing visual stimuli
and rapidly shifting the focus of their attention. Purveyors of brain training services
probably promise more than they can deliver. The currently hyped commercial
cognitive training tools that promise to stave off mental decline are not certain to
provide benefits. Even so, they have estimated sales of over $1.3 billion per year.
A meta-analysis of research suggests that training works to provide long-term improvements
in the skills undertaken, but the gains do not carry over into other areas.
In other words, playing Sudoku or doing crossword puzzles makes you better at
Sudoku or crosswords but doesn’t improve math or memory skills.
Some studies are more encouraging. An analysis of 51 studies of brain-training
found no improvements in memory or other mental skills in cognitively healthy
older people from home-based computerized cognitive training. The analysis did
find that group-based computerized cognitive training (CCT) is somewhat effective—
its overall effect on cognitive performance in healthy older adults is positive
but small—and it is ineffective for executive functions and verbal memory.
One study of 10 years duration followed three separate groups with an average age
of 74 who were trained in memory, or reasoning, or speed of processing. Five years
after the initial training, each of the groups still demonstrated improvements in the
skills in which they had trained, but the gains did not carry over into other areas.
Each cognitive intervention resulted in less decline in self-reported difficulty with
activities of daily living compared with the control group. Reasoning and speed
training, but not memory training, resulted in improved targeted cognitive abilities
for 10 years.
Another encouraging study was carried out by my colleagues at UCSF. They
demonstrated that a specially designed home computer driving game called NeuroRacer
improved both multitasking and cognitive control among adults age 60 to
85 with effects persisting for six months. The more difficult the game was, the more
positive the cognitive results. In contrast to many other studies, the benefits of this
training extended to untrained cognitive functions such as sustained attention and
working memory. These findings provide hope for the possibility of finding new
ways to improve the cognitive functioning of the aging brain.
Clive Thompson, a New York Times Magazine writer, emphasizes that there is much
hype and controversy in the brain training field, but some recent developments
show promise. Several companies are seeking approval from the Food and Drug
Administration to market their games as therapeutic for cognitive health.
So, what is the bottom line on brain training? A group of 30 scientists issued a consensus
statement. They note that “Any mentally effortful new experience, such
as learning a language, acquiring a motor skill, navigating in a new environment,
and, yes, playing commercially available computer games, will produce changes
in those neural systems that support the acquisition of the new skill. For example,
there may be an increase in the number of synapses, the number of neurons and
supporting cells, or a strengthening of the connections among them. This type of
brain plasticity is possible throughout the life span, though younger brains seem to
have an advantage over the older ones.”
But the experts caution with a summary statement: “We object to the claim that
brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse
cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they
do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which
is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged
lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading
claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We
encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”
This blog presents opinions and ideas and is intended to provide helpful general information. I am not engaged in rendering advice or services to the individual reader. The ideas, procedures and suggestions in that are presented are not in any way a substitute for the advice and care of the reader’s own physician or other medical professional based on the reader’s own individual conditions, symptoms or concerns. If the reader needs personal medical, health, dietary, exercise or other assistance or advice the reader should consult a physician and/or other qualified health professionals. The author specifically disclaims all responsibility for any injury, damage or loss that the reader may incur as a direct or indirect consequence of following any directions or suggestions given in this blog or participating in any programs described in this blog or in the book, The Building Blocks of Health––How to Optimize Your Health with a Lifestyle Checklist (available in print or downloaded at Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere). Copyright 2021 by J. Joseph Speidel.